BERKELEY -- Cal students angered by how their campus handles sexual assaults have filed a sweeping new federal complaint against UC Berkeley, drawing more scrutiny to a campus already facing a state investigation and mounting criticism.
For the second time since May, but in far larger numbers, a group of current and former students is asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the university, claiming Cal violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to protect them against sexual harassment and assault. And now their show of force is starting to get results from the university.
On Wednesday, in a powerful news conference at the campus's journalism school, six of the women -- wearing Cal T-shirts and sweatshirts -- told stories of despair, frustration and pain. They say the campus disciplinary process -- commonly used in addition to, or instead of, a criminal investigation -- fails to investigate and punish assailants or to keep victims informed about the status of their cases. Instead of feeling supported by their school, they said, they felt victimized again.
"I feel unsafe on my own campus, my own home. And the worst part of it is, I no longer trust my university to stand up for me. For four years, I dreaded leaving UC Berkeley, and now I can't wait to get out," wrote Cal senior Shannon Thomas in the complaint.
Thomas was one of the women who told her story publicly Wednesday, and for that reason this newspaper is naming her. She said she received little help after reporting she was being sexually harassed and threatened by a classmate.
The outcry at Cal is part of a national movement of sexual violence victims pressuring their campuses to deal swiftly, consistently and fairly with a problem that -- according to a White House task force report -- affects one in five college women.
The students decided to ask the Office for Civil Rights to investigate after not hearing for nine months from the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid office about their complaint.
Cal's sexual assault policies -- and those of UCLA, CSU Chico and San Diego State -- are also being probed by the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee. UC Berkeley has made changes and announced more Tuesday.
But the young women said their treatment has not matched the rhetoric.
"What really shocked me was Berkeley has this reputation of being a progressive school; I expected them to be supportive of a woman being assaulted by another student and to hold him responsible in a just way," Kass, now in law school out of state, said in a phone interview.
In September, Cal issued its first specific policy for sexual misconduct cases; it granted additional rights to assault victims, who can now appeal. Before an informal resolution is reached with the accused student, the campus is supposed to consult with the victim.
A Cal administrator Wednesday expressed sympathy for the women and a desire to improve its response. "Berkeley wants to do the right thing, and if we're not doing the right thing, we need to know what we can do differently," said Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Tuesday pledged to hold assailants accountable and to support sexual violence victims. In a prepared statement, Dirks said the campus was adding two positions -- one to help victims understand the disciplinary process and another to investigate complaints -- among other steps.
Dirks also thanked student leaders "who have sought to raise awareness and catalyze necessary changes by sharing their own personal and painful stories of sexual assault."
A Stanford law professor who led an overhaul of her campus's disciplinary process for sexual assault victims said colleges across the country need to do better. "These young girls had to drag the adults to the table, and that's wrong," said Professor Michele Dauber. "Their activism is forcing us to do what we should have done."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.