An outside report released Wednesday delivered a sweeping indictment of how sexual misconduct cases are handled by California State University and recommended wholesale reforms to improve accountability in the nation’s largest four-year public university system.
The report by the Cozen O’Connor law firm, presented at a meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees, found that the chancellor’s office does not track sexual harassment and sexual misconduct cases systemwide. It identified flaws in how campuses collect data, widespread distrust by students and employees in how wrongdoing is addressed and a low number of investigations — a majority of which never result in a formal resolution.
The report was ordered by the trustees last year after the resignation of the previous chancellor, Joseph I. Castro, who was swept up in a controversy over his handling of sexual harassment and retaliation reports against a top administrator when he was president of Fresno State.
Since then, Times investigations have found inconsistencies in the way reports of sexual misconduct are handled by officials across the 23-campus system and detailed how reports of wrongdoing against top administrators were not investigated by school officials and senior administrators in the chancellor’s office in Long Beach.
The Cal State system’s interim chancellor, Jolene Koester, acknowledged after the Cozen O’Connor findings were presented that the system has “fallen short” in how officials respond to reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and retaliation.
“Many of these report findings are difficult to hear,” she said, adding that addressing the problems “is going to be uncomfortable.”
Cozen O’ Connor said it visited each of the campuses and received survey feedback from nearly 18,000 students, staff, administrators and faculty across the Cal State system.
A final version of the report, along with findings for each campus, will be released in June. The recommendations presented to the trustees include a sweeping change in the role of the chancellor’s office, concluding that it needs to do a better job of tracking reports of misconduct to spot trends and breakdowns in data collection. The report also called for creating a pool of trained investigators who can assist staff at campuses, many of whom are overwhelmed by multiple duties and not capable of thoroughly investigating cases.
A top concern was how campuses collect data on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that is used to create annual public reports.
“We saw incredibly disjointed and frankly unreliable conclusions,” said Gina Maisto Smith, one of the attorneys who led the review, of campus reports.
CSU has so far paid more than $477,00 to the Cozen O’Connor law firm for work at 10 campuses and the chancellor’s office.
A Times analysis of CSU records found that officials completed investigations for about 3% of more than 2,600 reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct received last year across the 23-campus network for the 2021-22 school year. The reports are made under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination.
CSU records show several reasons for why investigations were not conducted: Some cases were informally resolved before an investigation by way of educational training, suspensions, terminations and expulsions that were agreed upon by the person accused of wrongdoing and those making reports; in hundreds of instances, students and employees opted for assistance outside of an investigation — such as referrals for a victim’s advocate or counselor.
Some campuses told The Times that the data did not accurately reflect the number of investigations and the chancellor’s office said that a handful of campuses reported additional data “that created inconsistencies.”
“The systemwide Title IX office is making significant changes to its annual report survey process to minimize the risk of inconsistencies,” CSU spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith said. “The survey results do not reflect pending investigations, or capture less formal inquiries conducted by the campus Title IX office that do not require an investigation pursuant to our policy.”
The Times analysis of campus records found that in more than 1,000 instances, the alleged victims in misconduct reports did not respond to subsequent outreach. In those cases, records do not detail how officials tried to connect with people, or how many attempts were made before concluding that a student or employee did not want to move forward with an investigation or require other help.
In recent interviews with The Times, students, alumni and current and former employees expressed distrust in their campus’ ability to protect them from retaliation or damage to their reputation.
Those who did comply with an investigation were not always satisfied with the outcome.
Melanie Mendoza Gasca, 20, a Cal State L.A. student majoring in English, said The Times’ findings on misconduct investigations were disturbing.
“I just can’t believe that this is the reality of our justice system in our schools,” she said. “It has to change. This is unacceptable.”
Gasca said she filed a sexual misconduct case but declined to discuss it because campus officials told her it was confidential.
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