Campus advocates provide key support to sexual assault survivors — but ‘superheroes’ are in short supply

Photograph by Name Gravity

By Mallika Seshadri and Zaeem Shaikh for CalMatters

When Laura Swartzen saw the email from Sacramento State University’s Title IX office, it felt like her heart skipped a beat.

Swartzen, the Sac State confidential campus advocate, had spent the past nine months supporting a student who reported being sexually assaulted. Swartzen had listened to the student’s wrenching account, offered to connect them with medical and mental health care, and sat with them through an “incredibly draining” formal hearing.

Now, the Title IX office — which investigates cases of campus sex discrimination — had found the perpetrator responsible for the assault. Swartzen’s lonely celebration lasted for just one joyful minute.

“I just took a moment, closed my eyes and thought of them,” said Swartzen, who had to keep the news to herself. Then she got back to work. “There’s a lot of other students that now need that same support.”

Fifty years since then-President Richard Nixon signed the country’s landmark gender discrimination law known as Title IX — and in the aftermath of a leadership shakeup within California’s largest public university prompted by a sexual harassment scandal — there’s fresh scrutiny over how the state’s colleges handle sexual misconduct.

Many sexual assault survivors and activists at California public universities and colleges say it’s simply not enough to have Title IX offices, which focus on the legal aspects of a case and campuses’ liability.

Instead, they say colleges need confidential advocates like Swartzen, who are independent from Title IX offices. Survivors say advocates are “superheroes” who are critical in helping them heal after a traumatic experience.

Thirteen percent of students report experiencing sexual violence during their time in college, according to the Association of American Universities — including more than a quarter of undergraduate women and more than 20% of transgender and nonbinary undergraduates. That’s equal to tens of thousands of undergraduates in the University of California system alone.

But across California’s public colleges and universities, the availability of advocates to support these students varies widely – from a robust sexual assault counseling center with a dozen staff members at UC Berkeley, to a single part-time advocate serving Cal State LA’s tens of thousands of students, to community college campuses where there is no survivor advocate at all. Some California State University campuses have allocated as much as $200,000 in a single year to support survivor advocates, while others have had an annual budget of $10,000.

“Over the recent decade, it’s been clear that universities need to reevaluate their approach to the issue of sexual assault…We need to actually face up to the unfortunate truth that this has been a culture of enabling sexual assault, sexual violence on our college campuses,” said Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Democrat from Riverside who authored a bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom that will standardize the survivor advocate role across California campuses.

After the Trump administration passed new rules in 2020 requiring that students filing formal claims of sexual harassment and assault be cross-examined in live hearings, Title IX experts say demand grew for alternatives to that process. (The Biden administration has proposed changes to those rules.)

“Title IX can also be a tool to harm students or to discourage students from coming out with their experience with sexual violence and sexual harassment issues,” said Bailey Henderson, external affairs vice president of the UC Berkeley’s student government.

Survivor advocates can help students decide whether and how to file Title IX complaints, advise them on their options if they choose not to file, and help them navigate hearings that can bring up the trauma of the original event.

Swartzen, for example, says she reminds survivors participating in online hearings that they can cover the screen with a Post-it to avoid seeing the alleged perpetrator. She often hands them a journal to draw on to distract themselves.

In one-on-one meetings in her office, she walks students who say they’ve experienced an assault through what will happen if they file a report with the campus Title IX office.

“It’s going to feel scary and a lot, and it is, and nothing has to happen today,” she tells them. “But it’s really, really important that you have all of that information so you feel really empowered to make that decision.”

For some of the survivors she works with, Swartzen said, no one else in their lives knows about what happened. “And so they’re navigating these big, big, big things by themselves.”

In Cal State system, every campus on its own

California State University, Dominguez Hills. Photo by Kaleb Tapp

At Cal State, where previous Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned in February after he was accused of mishandling sexual misconduct complaints against a Fresno State administrator while he was president of that university, many of the system’s largest campuses rely on a single survivor advocate to serve the entire student population. That includes some campuses where demand for advocates’ services has grown.

While most campuses provide survivors with access to a full-time advocate, there is little consistency in the ratio between the number of advocates and the size of the student population.

For example, Sacramento State and Cal Poly Pomona place their approximately 30,000 students in the care of one advocate. Meanwhile, Cal State Dominguez Hills is hiring a second advocate to serve a campus population of about 17,000 students, meaning each advocate would be responsible for about 8,500 students — less than a third of the load at Sacramento State and Cal Poly Pomona.

“There hasn’t been a lot of guidance from the CSU, from the Chancellor’s office, that trickles down to the campuses,” said Mayra Romo, associate director for the Center for Advocacy, Prevention and Empowerment at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “Every campus is kind of on their own.”

Besides meeting with students, survivor advocates also counsel faculty and staff, and conduct workshops with campus organizations about sexual violence and building healthy relationships.

Maintaining such a workload — and struggling with stress and frequent nightmares after hearing about students’ traumas — led Romo, who is also a survivor, to question her future as an advocate. She and other Cal State survivor advocates have formed an unofficial support group to help each other cope with the pressures of the job – any of them can call an emergency meeting at any time. Cal State Dominguez Hills’s decision to hire a second advocate was ultimately Romo’s “determining factor” in staying.

“It almost felt kind of unethical for me to continue serving survivors when I wasn’t okay,” Romo said. “But there was no option. There’s nothing else. If there wasn’t me to support them, who else is going to be there?”

More than a third of CSU campuses partner with nearby organizations that support survivors instead of employing an advocate on campus. That includes Cal State LA, which spends $35,000 each year to partner with a local rape crisis center called Peace Over Violence, which supported 22 students in 2021.

April Hernandez, the organization’s intervention division associate manager, said its advocate works with Cal State LA, which has about 27,000 students, for just eight hours per week — split into two four-hour shifts.

“We know sexual assault is obviously not only happening Monday through Friday, nine to five when the advocate is available,” Hernandez said.

In an email to CalMatters, a Cal State spokesperson said “the needs of campuses vary” when it comes to support for sexual assault survivors. “Campus leaders have the discretion to determine the staffing and how best to serve students and their unique campus communities,” the spokesperson said.

Some campuses have seen steep increases in demand for survivor advocate services in the past few years.

When she started working at Sacramento State in fall 2019, Swartzen saw around 15 students over the course of three months. Two years later, in the fall of 2021, she met with about 60 survivors.

“Many students have kind of disclosed that during COVID, they really didn’t have much to do but sit alone with their thoughts. And so, some things came to the surface,” Swartzen said, noting the pandemic also triggered increased rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

Since Castro’s resignation, numerous other instances of alleged sexual misconduct at Cal State have come to light, including a reported rape of a 17-year-old girl by three San Diego State football players, and charges that then-Sonoma State president Judy Sakaki retaliated against a provost who accused Sakaki’s husband of sexual harassment.

At Cal Poly Humboldt – which allowed a dean who had been fired in 2016 for groping and forcibly kissing female colleagues to return as a tenured professor, according to a USA Today investigation – President Tom Jackson recently seemed to admonish faculty and staff not to talk to the press about Title IX cases. “The process is designed to be behind the door so that we can resolve it for the individuals that are involved, not to celebrate it or promote it or use it for personal gain later on,” Jackson said during his Fall welcome address in August.

Cal State has commissioned an external review of its Title IX policies; the first phase of that investigation was scheduled to be complete by the end of July, but the university has yet to release the report. Lawmakers have also asked the state auditor to conduct its own investigation after Cal State’s review is complete.

Higher demand for campus advocates prolongs wait times and makes it more difficult for survivors to get help, said Fresno State senior Amalia Lopez. The lack of publicity for survivor advocate services also gets in the way.

Lopez said she struggled to get support on the Fresno State campus after she reported being sexually assaulted in 2020. She went to the Fresno State Police Department and told a detective about her experience. She said nobody — including the campus Title IX office — reached back out.

“After that, I was not in a mental place to reach out to resources,” said Lopez, who was 18 at the time. She added that she only came to know about the campus advocate after her case closed.

“At that point, it’s really too late. I needed the help years ago,” she said.

Earlier this year, Fresno State sat at the epicenter of the scandal that resulted in Castro’s resignation as chancellor.

Students including former Fresno State student Xitllali Loya led protests to press for Castro’s resignation and stand in solidarity with survivors. Fresno State has since hired a second advocate who will start in January. The campus should increase funding for survivor advocates, Loya said. But she added that the responsibility ultimately falls on campus and system leaders to make sure students can feel safe at Cal State.

“There’s only so much a sexual assault advocate can do,” Loya said. “You need to change the environment.”

Advocates at community colleges

Folsom Lake College. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Many California community colleges lack survivor advocates, instead directing students toward their Title IX officers or to local police.

One exception is the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, which contracts out to WEAVE, a local crisis intervention organization.

Demand for sexual harassment and assault support services tends to be lower at community colleges because students are older and don’t typically live on campus, said Joshua Moon Johnson, the Title IX coordinator at American River College in the district.

“These are our students, but it’s happening at their personal homes with their partners,” Johnson said.

While the Trump administration barred schools from investigating and punishing alleged assaults that happened off campus, that could soon change under a Biden administration proposal.

Johnson said WEAVE counselors provide confidential support that he can’t. And their independence is important, he said.

“Institutions, you know, have neglected survivors at the expense of making their institutions look good,” Johnson said. Advocates, on the other hand, “have no incentive to protect the institution. That’s not what they’re here for,” he said.

A possible model?

U.C. Berkeley. Photograph by Jeremy Huang

One place where survivor advocate services are more robust: the University of California, which established support centers on every campus in response to a wave of student activism in 2014, according to spokesperson Stett Holbrook.

Known as CARE centers – short for Campus Assault Resources and Education – they support survivors one-on-one and offer workshops on self care and healthy relationships, said Jazmin Jauregui, the interim co-director at the UC Santa Cruz CARE center. They can also refer students to therapists and help them seek out academic accommodations – such as extensions on assignments – after experiencing sexual misconduct, a right Title IX guarantees even when a formal complaint isn’t filed.

CARE offices provide critical support to students who may be confused or intimidated about their options, said Manju Cheenath, a student at UC Santa Barbara and the co-chairperson of Students Against Sexual Assault.

“I don’t think most students know anything about Title IX until something happens and they have to know everything about Title IX,” Cheenath said, adding that the system is “horrifically complicated…if you’re doing it by yourself, especially after going through something traumatic.” 

Henderson, the UC Berkeley student government representative, said the campus’s Path to Care office is often the first place student leaders direct survivors, mainly because they can present survivors with their various options and support them.

“They can take a step back from formal ways of doing things and just kind of like, care for the individual first,” he said.

UC Berkeley’s PATH to Care Center has 12 staff members – compared to just one at most CSU campuses —  who collectively supported 338 students, faculty and staff members during the 2020-21 academic year. The center also staffs an emergency hotline that received 738 calls that same year.

A similar center at UC Davis has six full-time staff members and served 70 survivors in 2021.

This model would have been extended to Cal State and community colleges under a bill proposed by Riverside Assemblymember Jose Medina. The bill, which would have required each campus to have confidential advocates for survivors as well as those accused of sexual assault, died in the Legislature in May.

“We do want to be consistent throughout the state and so that both the CSU and the community colleges would have a consistent response on all the campuses,” Medina said.

Making advocates independent

Photograph by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Cervantes’ bill will enshrine campus survivor advocates’ independent status into law, requiring that they be specially trained and that their communications with those they counsel be confidential. It will also require California’s public colleges and universities to inform students, faculty and staff who experience sexual assault about their options – including counseling, filing civil and criminal lawsuits, and going through the campus disciplinary process.

The bill “empowers campus-based sexual assault counselors with adequate protections and the ability to act independently from the university without fear of retribution,” said Cervantes. “This is exactly what we need to do to ensure that counselors have the support they need to do their jobs.”

Cervantes said campus policies – including the requirement that most staff report sexual assaults that they are aware of – sometimes conflict with the needs of the person who has suffered the assault. Confidentiality is important, she said, because it allows survivors to choose “how they wish to heal and seek justice.”

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