University of Chicago alumni demand sexual assault policy reform in open letter

By LINDSAY WELBERS
Staff Writer

University of Chicago alumni have submitted an open letter to their alma mater demanding sexual assault policy reform that they called for in the 1990s.

In a letter to U. of C. President Robert Zimmer dated Feb. 13, a group called Alumni for a Student Assault Policy said “We are deeply concerned that shortcomings that we identified in our university’s approach to sexual violence when we were students apparently still persist. We hope that the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation will be the catalyst to meaningful, permanent improvements in both the response to and prevention of sexual assault.”

Last month, OCR said it would be investigating the university for mishandling a student’s sexual assault complaint and violating her rights under Title IX, which bans sex-based discrimination.

The letter says in 1996 and 1997 then-students formed Action for a Student Assault Policy (ASAP) and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) “to address what we perceived as an urgent need for reform in how our university prevented and responded to sexual and other forms of assault. The organizations were created in reaction to frustration with what we believed were the administration’s mishandled and inadequate responses to both sexual assaults and assaults against minority students.”

The letter argues that at the time that ASAP was formed “allegations of assault were often handled by administrators with little or inadequate training in rape crisis response. Investigations, when conducted, were usually channeled through campus security rather than the Chicago Police Department. Campus police and student health services regularly failed to follow best practices when responding to allegations of sexual assault crimes, resulting in loss of evidence and inadequate care. Victims were offered relocation and  “mediation” with their assailant, whom they might see in class again the next day.”

Alumni are invited to add their signature to the letter online.

Last June, Olivia Ortiz filed a federal complaint with the OCR after she complained to the university that said she had been assaulted by her-then boyfriend. Ortiz said was pressured into an “informal mediation” where met face-to-face with her assailant and the Dean of Students Susan Art. Informal mediation is a process that violates both university procedures and Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sex-based discrimination in all education programs or activities that receive financial assistance.

Last month the OCR expanded its investigation campus-wide.

The university in response created a full-time position for a dedicated specialist who would work under the dean of students and specialize in cases of sexual assault and misconduct on campus. The position had previously been part-time.

Ortiz has been appointed to a student advisory board with resources to work on sexual violence prevention on campus and emergency student response systems.

l.welbers@hpherald.com