UC Merced has procedures to combat sexual assaults

UC Merced was not on a dubious list released Thursday, and officials say they’ve put in place the procedures needed to keep it that way.

The U.S. Department of Education took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of the 55 colleges and universities currently facing a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

The release came days after a White House task force promised greater government transparency on sexual assault in higher education. Going forward, the department said, it will keep an updated list of schools facing such an investigation and make it available upon request.

UC Merced is not on the list.

“UC Merced is extraordinarily proud of what we have established and what we hope to build upon looking into the future,” said Michael Reese, UC Merced’s vice chancellor for business and financial services.

Reese, who oversees the campus police, said he expects the college’s programs and network of agencies in Merced to meet most of the recommendations made this week by the White House.

The only glaring recommendation not already in place, he said, is regular surveys of “campus climate.” According to numbers from the White House, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college.

Establishing a climate where sexual violence is discussed and at the forefront of every students’ mind is key, Reese said. The university has had its violence prevention program in place from the beginning, he said, so expanding the program should be manageable.

Kari Mansager, director of UC Merced’s violence prevention program, said her team works closely with campus police and Valley Crisis Center, which advocates for abuse and sexual assault victims in Merced County. A Valley Crisis advocate is stationed on campus throughout the year.

The advocate can help a survivor of sexual violence consider the options related to reporting the incident to police and school administrators.

All incoming UC Merced students are also required to attend an hourlong workshop aimed at preventing sexual violence. “Right away it sets up the culture that these things are not OK,” Mansager said, “and that we expect everybody, men and women, to step in and speak up.”

The on-campus program also plans educational events throughout the year, she said. The program uses the four R’s: recognize, respond, refer and rape culture. The teaching tool covers how to recognize red flags, intervene in a potential incident, tell a survivor how to get advice from a professional and change the way assault is perceived.

In addition to the classes required for new students, she said, the program trained about 500 faculty, staff and officials in 2013 who might be approached by students who have been victimized. Those people need to know how to speak with the student and where to refer her or him.

The violence prevention program provided some kind of service for 42 people in 2013. Mansager was quick to point out that many of the students have been victims of violence in their hometowns and not on campus, so those seeking assistance in 2013 may have waited several years before they were ready to ask for help.

Of those 42 people, 15 sought help for sexual assault, 23 for domestic violence and four for being stalked. Fourteen of those people eventually reported the incidents to police, she said.

A student who perpetrates sexual violence could be subject to criminal investigations as well as an investigation from the university’s Title IX officer, who could have leeway to temporarily suspend the student during the investigation.

Meghan Kehoe, director of Valley Crisis Center, said domestic and sexual violence are chronically underreported, but the university has made strides in getting students to ask for help — a difficult hurdle for many. “It’s a community battle that we face every day,” she said.

Valley Crisis Center has also expanded its services to Merced College, Kehoe said, focusing heavily on training bystanders to recognize and intervene when they see a potentially dangerous situation. She said the program is also working on getting gender equality curriculum into the school.

The schools being investigated by the Department of Education range from big public universities such as Ohio State University, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Arizona State University to private schools such as Knox College in Illinois, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth are also on the list.

The campuses under investigation in California include Butte-Glenn Community College District; Occidental College; University of California, Berkeley; and University of Southern California.