Ex-Officer Says Occidental Sat on Anonymous Reports of Sex Assaults
A former campus safety officer at Occidental College tells L.A. Weekly that from 2009 to 2013, administrators never gave him any reports of sexual assaults made anonymously - even though college officials are required by federal law to give these reports to the safety office. "Nothing ever came to our department," Edward Cunje says, raising questions about whether reports were, in some cases, omitted from the official record.
Cunje's revelation comes as Oxy tries to emerge from a national controversy that erupted last year when college administrators were accused by a group of students and professors of covering up sexual assaults on campus.
Illustration by Patrick Faricy
Cunje - a towering man with a gentle disposition - worked alongside his father, Joseph Cunje, who climbed the ranks during his 30 years at Oxy to become the lieutenant overseeing campus safety.
The father-son team were let go within six months of each other after each took a medical leave for different reasons. According to the Occidental campus newspaper, in reaction to an uproar on campus over his termination in February, Joseph Cunje's staff position was several days ago changed from "terminated" to "leave of absence" and he will be allowed to retire in 2018.
Before Edward Cunje left Oxy last year, he says that part of his job was to record in a daily crime log every campus crime reported in person or via phone call or written report by students, faculty, visitors and others.
The daily crime log was then used to create the college's annual "Clery" report, a federally mandated document that tracks campus crime, including sexual violence.
The Cunjes took pride in keeping the campus safe. "Our job is to protect the students," says Edward Cunje. "And we did that."
Occidental has an anonymous reporting form for those who want to report sexual violence without using their names.
According to Jim Tranquada, an Occidental spokesman, the filled-out anonymous forms went to the Dean of Students' office as well as Project SAFE, a program dedicated to addressing sexual assault on campus.
Tranquada says that 20 anonymous reports were filed in 2010, three in 2011, and four in 2012.
Of the 20 filed in 2010, he says, 19 were from a survey conducted by Project SAFE, and not via the anonymous reporting form.
But Cunje says all anonymous forms should then have been turned over to the campus safety office so Cunje could record them. Between 2009 and 2013, he says, he never saw a single anonymous report.
"Nothing ever came to our department," Cunje insists. When no anonymous sexual reports came across his desk, "I just assumed no one used [the form]," he explains. His father declined to comment for this story.
The federal Clery Act doesn't spell out how to handle anonymous sexual assault reports, but experts have interpreted the Act - as well as the Department of Education's guidelines for reporting campus crime - as requiring that the existence of anonymous reports, and their specific numbers, be made public.
Cunje's allegation suggests the school may have left some reports of sexual violence out of their annual numbers, which would be a violation of federal law.
Occidental adamantly denies that anything was left out. In an email, Tranquada says, "It has been the College's practice to include anonymous reports in its Clery numbers, including for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012."
Ted SoquiOccidental professor Caroline Heldman cites a much higher number of anonymous reports for 2012.
But Caroline Heldman, a professor of politics at Occidental who has been an outspoken activist on the issue of campus sexual assault, says that during a meeting in the fall of 2012 with campus administrators, she learned that ten anonymous reports were filed in 2012.
Heldman's figure of 10 does not match the four anonymous reports Tranquada cites for 2012.
Tranqada says that anonymous reports didn't stop at the Dean of Student's office or Project SAFE. Instead, he says that anonymous reports were handed off to Cunje's boss, Director of Campus Safety Holly Nieto.
Nieto would not comment on the situation. Now, Nieto is retiring, as announced on April 1 by Dean of Students Barbara Avery. In an April 15 article by Occidental Weekly, the campus paper, Nieto said of her departure, "I'm not comfortable talking about some of it, but I will simply tell you that it's time."
Nieto expressed annoyance with the way in which reports of sexual assaults were handled and communicated to her office.
"It's incredibly frustrating for someone sitting in my chair or wearing the sparkly shoes that I'm wearing to have to deal with people who say, 'I know something, but I'm not going to tell you what it is, but I'm going to hold you accountable for making sure it's reported correctly,'" Nieto said. "We make every attempt possible to categorize [sexual assault reports] correctly."
For the past year, Occidental has been engaged in a seemingly endless battle with students, professors and the media over whether its sexual assault crime figures are correct.
In April of 2013, ten young women filed two federal complaints against the school alleging that school administrators discouraged them from reporting rape, and that the school wasn't accurately reporting allegations of sexual assault.
The school settled with the students, and has not publicly addressed their allegations.
Cunje says that when he found out students had filed two federal claims against the school, he was devastated.
"The majority of the students that filed the complaint, I know those kids," he says, "and it broke my heart. Not only did they go through something traumatic, but it wasn't even handled correctly."
The Cunjes have had their own share of troubles with the school.
According to Edward, after his dad worked for 30 years at Oxy, he had a stroke in January 2013 that left him unable to work. He says the family attributes the stroke to the stress Joseph Cunje was under at work, where allegations of underreported sexual assault that should have fallen under Joseph's jurisdiction had already begun to surface.
For a year, Joseph's job was held open for him, Edward Cunje says. Then, in February 2014, his father was terminated without warning.
Joseph's Cunje's termination caused an uproar on campus. His many supporters, including students and professors, said that his years of service to the school were disregarded. The school declined to comment on the matter. After the public outcry, Cunje was rehired and can stay until his retirement in 2018.
The younger Cunje had been hired in the campus safety office shortly after graduating from Occidental and left under strained circumstances.
Following back surgery in 2013, Edward tells the Weekly he was assured by campus administrators that his job would be safe while he recovered. Several weeks after his procedure, doctors told him that he would need to miss more work. Again, he claims he was reassured by Occidental administrators that his job would wait for him.
A week later, he says, he was suddenly let go. His job hasn't been reinstated, and the school declined to comment on it.
Local and national news outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post and Buzzfeed, picked up on the Occidental sex assault controversy this year after the L.A. Times fired award-winning investigative reporter Jason Felch, who had penned a number of articles questioning Oxy's compliance with federal law.
Felch's editor Davan Maharaj publicly castigated Felch for having an affair with a source at Oxy, and in a prominently displayed correction Maharaj announced that Felch had erred when his stories stated that Oxy failed to disclose, in its 2012 Clery report, 27 allegations of sexual assault.
He was fired after G.F. Bunting+Co, a crisis communications firm retained by Occidental, met with the editor-in-chief of the Times, Maharaj, and convinced Maharaj that the number of sex assault reports disclosed by the college in 2012 - seven - was correct.
Felch fired back, noting that he had voluntarily told his editors about his affair, had stopped using the source once the affair began, and was not given a chance to see or dispute the details of the Bunting firm's presentation attacking his reporting.
Lauren Lipton at the Columbia Journalism Review has reported, based on an anonymous source, that in another highly unusual move, Maharaj and Times Publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein went to Occidental in person to apologize to Occidental president Jonathan Veitch.
Calls and emails to Maharaj and Hartenstein were not returned, and Occidental declined to comment on the matter.
U.S. Department of EducationThree California schools make the fed's list of colleges under formal investigation.
Now, the issue of potential mishandling of sexual assault cases on U.S. campuses has made its way to the White House.
A White House task force issued a report last week encouraging universities to address campus sexual violence more aggressively. The federal government released a list of 55 colleges it is investigating for "possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints."
The three schools under federal investigation in California are Occidental, UC Berkeley and USC.
President Barack Obama attended Occidental before transferring to Columbia University.
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