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Feds warn colleges: handle sexual assault reports properly

The Obama administration has taken a tougher stance after federal officials saw problems at a number of schools. But some say the administration is taking things too far.

By Staff writer / September 2, 2011

The Obama administration is taking a tougher stance on how colleges' handle reports of sexual assault on campus.

Photo Illustration: Zuma Press/Newscom

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The Obama administration is holding colleges' feet to the fire when it comes to how they handle reports of sexual violence and harassment.

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The tougher stance comes after federal officials saw problems at a number of schools that led some victims of sexual violence to feel revictimized by campus policies and procedures. The Obama approach also follows years of perceived inattention to the issue by the Bush administration.

With the school year under way at many colleges, at least one student – at the College of New Jersey – has already told authorities she was the victim of a sexual assault.

All colleges are now on notice that they must ensure they're responding promptly and fairly to reports of sexual misconduct. Federal officials have launched investigations based on information that concerns them about certain campuses.

"In many ways, there is a new sheriff in town," says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy at the American Association of University Women in Washington.

But some academic-freedom advocates say the sheriff has gone too far. In particular, they're concerned that the standard of proof the Obama administration is urging will wrongly take down some of the accused.

US officials want "to sort of shortcut the process of justice by making it easier to convict," says Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

In April, the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to colleges and schools. It clarified specific ways that sexual violence should be addressed under Title IX, a 1972 gender-equity law governing educational institutions that receive federal funds. Among other things, the letter addressed appropriate time frames for the resolution of cases and the need to offer the accuser and the accused equal rights. It also reiterated that if a hostile environment exists – for instance, a violent incident that negatively affects a student's learning experience – the school must take steps to support the victim and cure that environment.

At least 25 schools, ranging from Stanford University to the University of Virginia, have already changed some policies in response to the letter, say OCR officials.

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