Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Updates on OCR's Investigations into Colleges' Responses to Campus Sexual Assault

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has its hands full with sexual assault complaints. It has opened investigations into the complaints filed earlier by students from Dartmouth College, University of Southern California, University of Colorado Boulder, Swarthmore College, Occidental College, and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Here are some updates in each of those cases.  

In the Dartmouth case, OCR has initiated on its own an investigation into possible Title IX violations in the college's sexual harassment grievance procedures, its responses to sexual harassment claims, and its designation of a Title IX coordinator. These claims were not included in the students' earlier-filed complaint, which focused on sexual assault reporting problems as alleged Clery Act violations.

At USC, the OCR will investigate claims that the university failed to investigate and discipline students accused of rape.  One complainant told OCR that campus police refused to consider an act of rape when a male student penetrated her, but did not ejaculate.  Another said that university official told her, by way of explanation for not responding to her allegation of rape, that the university's job was to the educate, not to punish students. 

The student who filed a complaint about CU Boulder alleges that the university failed to adequately respond to sexual assault committed on her, even though her assailant was found guilty of nonconsensual intercourse by a university disciplinary committee.  The assailant was sanctioned to an 8 month suspension, which was not enforced for four weeks during which time he continued to have contact with her.  Meanwhile, the local criminal court had no trouble issuing a restraining order that would prevent the him from returning to campus while she is a student there.  She argues that the university should have been willing to provide at least as much protection to ensure her safety and well-being.

The ongoing Title IX investigation about Swarthmore's failure to adequately respond to sexual assault has already prompted the college to update its policies, it was recently reported. Swarthmore responded to the initial filing of the complaint last May by hiring a private company to conduct an independent review of its handling of sexual assault, and its findings form the basis for the college's changes going forward.  The college will also hire a Title IX coordinate and a victim's advocate, and will improve training for university staff.  These changes could speed up OCR's investigation, and could allow Swarthmore to emerge from the investigation with OCR's effective blessing on current practices and procedures.  Swarthmore also faces complaints that they underreported sexual assaults in violations of the Clery Act, and OCR has not yet announced an investigation into these claims.

Like Swarthmore, Occidental College also hired an external reviewer to evaluate its sexual assault policies, even while OCR's investigation is ongoing.  

OCR's investigation into complaints that UNC violated Title IX and the Clery Act recently expanded to include a claim that it retaliated against the student who initially filed those complaints by charging her with an honor code violation.  The charge, which was ultimately dropped, accused her of creating an intimidating environment for her alleged abuser.   UNC is also accused of retaliating against the initial complainant by moving her assailant to a dorm near her residence.