UPDATE: Did break-ins and coverups lead to the Los Angeles Times firing of investigative reporter Jason Felch, who was probing new sexual assault scandals at Occidental?
When Leah Capranica decided to go to Occidental College in Los Angeles, she thought she had found a school whose values matched her own. With its tranquil campus in Eagle Rock and its diverse student body — after all, President Barack Obama went there — the Springfield, Ill., native couldn't wait to attend an institution that would give her the opportunity to pursue her dream of studying politics.
But two weeks before her sophomore year began, Capranica, now 22, says she was sexually assaulted by another student. When she went to report the crime to school officials, Capranica was shocked by their response.
“I was told I might have to stay in the same dorm as the guy who had done this,” she says, “and that my case wasn't really that serious.”
Capranica, who declines to divulge details about her rape, unfortunately didn't report the alleged assault to the Los Angeles Police Department. “It's an incredibly emotional process,” she says, “and based on the experience I was having at the school, I just didn't feel it was something I wanted to do at that time.”
Capranica did push for an internal investigation at the school, though, and following a secret, closed-door hearing involving campus faculty and administrators, her rapist was found responsible by Oxy for assaulting her — as well as two other students. But after initially being expelled, the male student's punishment inexplicably was reduced to a suspension.
He will be allowed back on campus in December, never having been publicly named.
Then, when a rape near campus was revealed by CBS2 News in February, angry students and faculty began lashing out at college president Jonathan Veitch, dean of students and vice president for student affairs Barbara Avery and college counsel Carl Botterud for failing to alert the campus and for mishandling previous rape allegations. Critics dubbed themselves the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition.
In April, members of that group, including Capranica and 37 current and former Occidental students, filed two federal complaints against the college. They say Oxy's secretive, image-conscious administration violated Title IX, which prevents colleges and universities from discriminating against students based on gender, as well as the Clery Act, which requires schools to report crimes that happen on campus.
They allege that Occidental has made a habit of discouraging students from reporting rapes to the college administration, retaliating against the mostly female students who do report rapes, and allowing alleged rapists back on campus.
Amidst this tension, a student accused the college's attorney, Botterud, of belittling the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition to a group of male athletes, telling the men, “Fuck 'em,” and arguing that the coalition had vilified male students in the complex cases to which police sometimes refer as “he said, she said.” On May 6, the faculty considered a vote of “no confidence” in Avery and Botterud. It passed overwhelmingly.
Then, on May 22, prominent attorney Gloria Allred — representing eight students at Oxy — announced that those clients would be joined by women from USC, UC Berkeley, Swarthmore and Dartmouth who had filed similar complaints. “We have up to 16 violations that we lay out in the complaint,” says Tucker Reed, 23, a female co-filer at USC. “They are not only federal civil rights violations but also violations of school policy.”
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has announced that it is investigating one of the federally filed complaints. If that investigation ultimately shows that the school isn't compliant with Title IX and Oxy doesn't correct the problem, it could cost the private four-year college its federal funding.
Avery did not return numerous calls from L.A. Weekly seeking comment, but Botterud says it's possible he said “fuck 'em” because he strongly feels that all students — male and female — should have a voice in the tense conversation unfolding at Occidental, and some men feel they don't. “I don't recall whether I said that or not,” Botterud says. “But it sounds like something I would have said under the circumstances.”
Unfolding events have left the campus divided and the highly active Eagle Rock community wondering how this could happen in their backyard.
Danielle Dirks, an assistant professor of sociology, has firsthand experience with what she describes as the school's mishandling of rape allegations. After starting her job at Occidental in 2011, she says she was floored by the number of students who came to her office feeling “hurt and betrayed by the administration” after trying to report they had been sexually assaulted by other students.
“People have the idea that this college is kind of idyllic, and our campus is stunningly beautiful and amazing in every other way,” Dirks says. “So it's hard for them to think, 'Oh my gosh, that's going on at Oxy.' ”
Dirks and other faculty members say that, when they pushed the administration to change, long before the eruptions in the spring, they were ignored. Veitch, who took over at Oxy in 2009, admits he was too slow to respond, telling L.A. Weekly, “When we get these cases, we need to do a better job of investigating them, adjudicating them, responding empathetically to the students that have been violated, and we have to do a much better job on education.”
That's not good enough for critics, who point to what happened last fall. “The term 'too pushy' came up,” alleges Caroline Heldman, an assistant professor of sociology who was involved in Dirks' effort, in describing a September 2012 meeting with dean of students Avery. Heldman says Avery told her, “I admit my staff has been basically rejecting all of your ideas because faculty are too pushy on this issue.”
At that time, the position of the school's brass appeared to be that the mostly female victims were exaggerating a sexual encounter they allowed to unfold, or wrongly describing aggressive sexual play during drinking.
Veitch tells the Weekly he's been giving the college's past handling of such incidents “a lot of thought. I think I was slow to respond initially. In truth, I thought I was doing the right thing.”
For many, that's a disturbing take on alleged sexual assault at this 125-year-old bastion of progressive thinking, which prides itself on its Presbyterian founders' liberal agenda and thirst for knowledge. The peaceful, 120-acre campus is lined with lush trees; a tranquil, green quad sits at its entrance. With about 2,100 students, the school is known for annual traditions such as a neighborhood birthday party and a water balloon fight pitting seniors against the college president.
Yet evidence suggests that officials' reluctance to take action on rape allegations allowed a criminal and social problem to become a crisis, creating potentially profound legal and political problems, and something equally foreign to Occidental — a permeating sense of distrust and unease.
When Carly Mee, now 22, finally decided in her junior year to report a sexual assault she says happened when she was a freshman, she says she was told that she was mistaken in thinking her assailant capable of rape.
“When I spoke to an administrator,” she says, refusing to name the female official, “I said, 'I've been feeling really unsafe and worried that he will attack me again,' and she told me that she met with him and didn't feel like that was something he would do, so I didn't have to worry.”
Mee's alleged assailant, incredibly, was the same male student who attacked Capranica. He was found by Occidental, in secret proceedings, to have been responsible for attacking Mee. The unidentified male, whom Mee refuses to publicly name out of fear, was suspended but not expelled.
“When I met with an administrator to ask why” he wasn't expelled, Mee says, “they said it was 'extraordinary circumstances,' and that it was a 'messy case.' ”
Audrey Logan, now 22, mustered the courage in her sophomore year to report that she had been raped on two separate occasions in her freshman year — by a young man she considered a friend. She says the administration made repeated errors in handling her report, yet her assailant admitted he assaulted her.
“It wasn't a situation where someone says something happened and the other person says nothing happened and then they're trying to figure out who's telling the truth,” Logan says. “It was an agreement on the events, and then the administration trying to figure out if that 'violated' the sexual-assault policy.”
Logan's assailant was found by Occidental, in closed-door proceedings, to have attacked her. He was expelled. Logan refuses to name him publicly after, she says, having faced retaliation from her social circle for pursuing a case against him.
According to Logan, administrators asked her to consider a settlement that might allow her assailant to return to school. She refused.
“I felt like I personally cared more about the safety of this community than a lot of the administrators,” she says.
Despite the recurrent themes in these cases, it wasn't until this February that brewing anger over complaints about sexual assault at Oxy came to a head. One night, while walking near campus, an Occidental student was raped. This time the incident wasn't stifled by Oxy's leaders or by a traumatized victim — it was reported to LAPD.
Rather than hear first from school officials about the attack, the campus community learned of the crime from CBS2 News. The local news channel reported that the incident occurred at about midnight on Feb. 24 in the 4900 block of Range View Avenue, which leads directly into campus. “People were upset,” says Ryan Meltzer, a 21-year-old track and field athlete at Oxy. “Students were responding, [asking] how did the news get to this first?”
From there, pent-up stories of rapes and other sexual assaults began to snowball. Reports of sexual assault on or near the campus flooded the college's crime log; in the two months following the February attack, 45 incidents of sexual violence were reported, some dating to 2010.
“Numbers will be extremely high this year,” Dirks says, “but they will be more accurate.”
Though some may find it startling, under state and federal law, colleges and universities are not required to report rape to the police, unless the alleged victim is a minor. The responsibility falls on the adult victim, but many — like Capranica, Logan and Mee — are extremely reluctant to go public.
LAPD's data starkly reflect this fact: Despite the 45 incidents now in the college's crime log, Detective Lina Teague, LAPD's sexual-assault coordinator at the Northeast Division, which serves Eagle Rock, notes that only three rapes involving Occidental students have been reported to LAPD in the past two years.
There are multiple reasons for victims' failure to alert police, says David Lisak, a Boston-based clinical psychologist and expert on college sexual assault. Many victims of non-stranger rape — which comprises much of on-campus rape — are too traumatized to speak of the experience. If it's date rape or a rape by someone who, up until the attack, was viewed as a friend, Lisak adds, “It's quite typical for [the victim] not to be able to really apply the label 'sexual assault' or 'rape' to what happened.”
And on college campuses — particularly at small schools, where everyone knows everyone else — there's a fear of being ostracized or blamed for what happened.
“It's fairly common for questions and comments to be directed at them, like, 'You were just drunk, you don't really know what happened, you were just as responsible as he was,' ” Lisak says.
From an administrative standpoint, he adds, “There's this long-standing view of, 'Well, it's just young people who have often had too much to drink, and it's all very gray, and maybe they need to learn more about consent issues. … There's an inclination to deal with it as an educational problem rather than as very serious criminal conduct.”
Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Oxy, says that view is widespread in Oxy's executive offices. “I'm rather stunned by how many rape myths I hear come out of the mouths of our administrators,” Wade says. “For example, [Occidental president Jonathan] Veitch saying that he was disinclined to believe sexual-assault survivors, or several of our administrators saying that sexual assault is a matter of miscommunication.”
But according to Lisak's research, which was published in 2002 in the journal Violence and Victims, young men, including students, who commit rape or other sexual assaults at universities often are not just drunk or confused about the requirement to get consent. He has found that about 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are perpetrated by serial offenders who deliberately target their victims.
“The more research that's done on these guys,” he says, “the more they basically look like other sex offenders,” who also happen to be college kids or friends of college kids. “What is new is that a lot of people have had this schema that one would not find sex offenders on a college campus, and there's no reason other than we just don't like the idea. It's jarring.”
The deep divisions emerging at Occidental, and the unwanted attention from federal investigators and mega-lawyer Allred, raise the question of why the school didn't alter its approach before now. But there could be more going on than, as President Veitch suggests, a failure to craft policies that more clearly put student security first.
Colleges and universities have a disincentive to be upfront about rape allegations made on their campuses. If the number of such incidents got out, critics suggest, colleges could have a PR nightmare on their hands — one that could be costly come enrollment time. “The first wave of colleges that tell the truth about rates of rape and sexual assault on campus,” Oxy's Heldman says, “will take a hit with admissions.”
And when it comes to admissions, Veitch — like most college presidents — has a reputation to uphold. Before becoming president of Occidental, he was the dean of the Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York. There, he helped grow enrollment by 39 percent.
Since Veitch arrived at Oxy in 2009, applications have increased by 3.2 percent. A campuswide scandal involving dozens of alleged crimes and students could harm the college's growth and reputation, as well as the financial gifts that stream in each year.
“Parents may not want to have their daughters apply for admission, and that would affect the bottom line,” says Allred. “If alumni know that there are a number of rapes and sexual assaults on campus … that may affect the fundraising.”
On the charming streets of surrounding Eagle Rock, known for its hundreds of historic Craftsman, moderne, art deco and Mission Revival homes and bungalows, some residents aren't surprised that sexual-assault allegations were kept under wraps. Michael Nogueira, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, says that while past administrators at Occidental informed the community of campus goings-on and took an active role in the neighborhood, Veitch has kept his distance.
“In the past, we've always had community leaders meet with the presidents and board of trustees and talk about what the college can do for the community,” Nogueira says. Now, he complains, “We're not getting much of anything.”
Given what he sees as a real shift in what was a largely positive, good-will exchange of information between residents and college, Nogueira says he wouldn't be surprised to find that the school was keeping the lid on a controversy like sexual assault.
“They don't say anything, they keep things hush-hush,” he says. “It's too bad, it's really too bad.”
Nogueira also slams the LAPD, saying that they, too, sought to downplay the controversy to protect accused students.
“We have our LAPD senior lead officer come to the Neighborhood Council meeting and give reports of what's happening in the community,” Nogueira says. “She told us 'We've got to be very, very careful in filing reports or making arrests.' You are gonna ruin that student. He will be expelled and he will be marked as a sex offender. You don't want to scar a male student for the rest of his life.”
Teague says LAPD would never support such advice and dismisses Nogueira's criticism. “I have no independent knowledge of any of my investigators giving that advice,” she says. “We take every report very seriously.”
Now, the administration is rushing to make changes. Occidental has brought in two outside consultants, Gina M. Smith and Leslie M. Gomez, from Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton, to review its policies and procedures on sexual assault in order to recommend and help implement any necessary changes.
In a May 1 letter to students and faculty, Veitch outlined his plans to “address the serious concerns raised about sexual assault at Occidental,” which include the implementation of a 24/7 sexual-assault hotline as well as an ongoing sexual-assault awareness training program for students and faculty.
Some passionate critics among parents of students don't think much of these plans.
“I've had some exchanges with President Veitch around this and I'm not impressed,” says Eric Kessel, a San Francisco–based psychologist whose daughter will be a sophomore at Occidental in the fall, and who has supported the victims of sexual assault on campus. “No one is. He's not trusted at this point. Changes have been promised before and he didn't stick with it. In my last email exchange with him, I told him he is on the wrong side of history.”
Kessel says real harm has already been done that cannot now be undone. “Veitch's slowness in making change happen at the school means that, during that period, people were harmed,” he says. “There were assaults … by people who were not kicked out, by people who were not educated, and the message to people who had been assaulted was the wrong one.”
Allred says, “Most of the recommendations that were made [by Smith and Gomez] have already been made in the past, and they still have not implemented them. … I see a lot of this as foot-dragging and face-saving.”
Beyond the reluctance among college administrators at Oxy, and at numerous colleges and universities from coast to coast, to air their dirty laundry about campus sexual assault, the criminal justice system is still struggling to find a way to deal with rape when it involves two people who know each other.
Attorney Saundra K. Schuster, a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, says, “A prosecutor or the DA has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred,” and with non-stranger rape, “it's an extraordinarily high standard to reach.”
LAPD's Teague adds that there's a widespread misconception that, if two people know each other or are dating, sex between them cannot be a criminal assault. “People think that it can't be rape if you've had consensual sex in the past,” she says. “But to have sexual intercourse with anybody against their will, that is rape.”
When the full student body comes streaming back in the fall, for many it will be to a place less welcoming and secure than before. It is telling that, even in the broader off-campus community, perceptions of the beloved neighborhood college are being tested.
“It seems pretty crazy to happen at that school. No one would've thought it would happen at Oxy,” says Vineeth Ratnaweera, an employee at the Coffee Table, a bistro on Colorado Boulevard, not far from Oxy. “Certain types of people go there — they're not party kids. Seems like everyone's got their head on straight and it's not as crazy as the other colleges.”
Teague says LAPD is working with the school to encourage students to report what has happened to them. “We are working together to come to an understanding on when to contact law enforcement,” she says. “Hopefully we can come to an agreement and encourage the victim to come forward.”
But Mila Conste, who has lived in Eagle Rock for eight years and has encouraged her 17-year-old daughter to attend the college right down the street, is having second thoughts.
“It's really scary nowadays,” Conste says. “Why are we not made aware of these things? Why? We should know — it's like you're sleeping and you're not aware of the commotion.”
Follow the writer on Twitter @jessicapauline.