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.
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On the flip side, "we had heard of universities deferring entirely to law enforcement," Ali says. In one case, the alleged perpetrator graduated before the university even began its Title IX investigation.Skip to next paragraph
In addition to the April letter, OCR has been conducting inquiries and compliance reviews, prompted by concerns at specific schools.
OCR reached a settlement with the University of Notre Dame in July, which came about partly because a student at the university's sister school killed herself after she had filed a report accusing a Notre Dame student of sexual assault. The university agreed to better publicize how to report sexual harassment and violence. It also agreed to make clear that it uses a "preponderance of the evidence" standard and would resolve cases within 60 days, except in extraordinary circumstances.
Coming on the heels of the OCR letter, the settlement is "a shot across the bow to every university in the country," reinforcing the need to comply, says Robert B. Smith, an education specialist at LeClairRyan law firm in Boston.
OCR is also conducting compliance reviews related to sexual violence at the entire 64-campus system of the State University of New York, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, as well as the West Contra Costa Unified School District in California. The reviews are based, in part, on large numbers of reported assaults, concerns that have been raised about procedures and policies, or, in one case, a gang rape, Ali says.
Moreover, Yale University is being investigated based on a complaint to OCR that the college hasn't adequately addressed students' charges of sexual harassment.
Ali says long-term civil rights staffers in her office have commented that they're seeing unprecedented levels of change and a strong desire among colleges to stamp out sexual violence and harassment, but there's a long way to go.
"It really will require a culture shift writ large," she says. "Can the federal government and civil rights laws help? For sure. But I wouldn't suggest that our enforcement is a panacea."
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