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California State University campuses mishandled sexual harassment allegations, audit finds

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Posted at 12:13 PM, Jul 19, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A flawed policy at California State University, the largest higher education system in the country, contributed to the closure of nearly a dozen sexual harassment cases without thorough explanation, according to a state audit reviewing 40 cases over the span of seven years.

The audit, released Tuesday, examined allegations of harassment between 2016 and 2022 against employees at the university system's chancellor's office and three of 23 campuses: California State University, Fresno, San José State University and Sonoma State University. It found that the colleges failed to discipline people found responsible for misconduct, including one case where officials took no action in the five years after a faculty member was found guilty of sexual harassment, sexual violence and stalking.

“The problems and inconsistencies we found during this audit warrant systemwide changes at CSU,” California State Auditor Grant Parks said in a statement. “In particular, the Chancellor’s Office must take a more active approach to overseeing campuses’ efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment.”

Parks’ office recommended the university system require colleges to find out if someone has been accused of harassment multiple times, make them clearly explain why officials didn’t investigate a case, and give guidance for how to contact accusers.

Jolene Koester, California State University’s interim chancellor, said in a statement that officials would comply with the recommendations. Representatives from California State University, Fresno, San Jose State University and Sonoma State University did not immediately respond to an email request for comment on the audit’s findings.

Sexual harassment is among the misconduct banned by state and federal laws, but California State University's policy aimed to address it falls short, the audit found. The auditor's office says it should better guide colleges on what steps to take after an incident is reported.

“Deciding whether to conduct a formal investigation is one of the most critical steps in a campus’ process for responding to an allegation,” the audit says. “Nonetheless, CSU’s sexual harassment policy lacks detailed guidelines about how to make and document these determinations.”

There were more than 1,200 reports of sexual harassment by employees overall at California State University campuses between 2018 and 2022, the report shows. Of those, 254 were investigated.

The largest share of reports — nearly 18% — were at California State University, Fullerton, which is about 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. There were also nearly 160 employees across all 23 campuses between 2018 and 2022 who were accused of sexual harassment multiple times, according to the report.

One student alleged a faculty member made inappropriate comments to her and compared her to women he had dated. The campus declined to investigate, the audit found. It didn't specify which campus.

Seven of 21 investigations the auditor's office reviewed “contained deficiencies that caused us to question the campuses’ determinations that sexual harassment had not occurred.” For example, a faculty member who was found responsible for making inappropriate comments to a contract worker and hugging her, and kissing another worker without their consent was not found to have violated the sexual harassment policy, the audit says.