Some of the 55 colleges and universities facing federal investigation for their handling of sexual abuse allegations say they’re cooperating with the U.S. Education Department, though few are offering details about what information the agency is seeking.
The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is one of only a handful of schools named by federal officials Thursday to publicly reveal anything about why the department is investigating. The probe involves the school’s handling of a reported 2009 violation of its sexual misconduct policy by then-football placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who was expelled this past December.
Michigan is “fully cooperating” with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, school spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.
“They were on campus a week or so ago doing some interviews with faculty, staff and students,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve had information related to the investigation posted on our website since they informed us about the investigation toward the end of February. This is well-known on campus.”
A student government group that examined the school’s student sexual misconduct policy said last month that it planned to share with investigators its determination that the university failed to explain the delay between the alleged incident and Gibbons’ expulsion.
The Obama administration is seeking more openness about the issue of sexual violence on and around the nation’s campuses. On Thursday, the Education Department revealed its list of schools facing investigations that were started after complaints were filed with its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) or as part of a review to see whether the schools were complying with Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at institutions receiving federal funds.
It is the same law that guarantees girls and women equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions’ handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.
The schools range from public universities, including Ohio State, the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State, to private schools including Knox College in Illinois, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. Some Ivy League schools also are on the list.
The department did not provide details, but information about some of the investigations has come out.
The investigation at Vanderbilt University follows complaints filed in November by students and former students who alleged the school responded inadequately to reports of sexual assault. It also comes amid a criminal case in Nashville of allegations that four former Vanderbilt football players took part in a gang rape of a student in a school dorm last June.
Vanderbilt spokeswoman Beth Fortune said in an email that the school was cooperating in the investigation.
At Boston University, spokesman Colin Riley said a single complaint was filed against the university last October.
“While we believe the University provided the student with a prompt and equitable resolution of the complaint in full accordance with the requirements of Title IX, we are cooperating fully with OCR in its investigation and are always open to improving the manner in which we respond to any incident of sexual misconduct reported to us,” Riley said.
Many schools sought to emphasize that there were no complaints against them.
Ohio State spokesman Gary Lewis said his school was on the list as part of a “proactive review” of procedures for combating student sexual violence and harassment.
“OCR has consistently told us that Ohio State has impressive protocols and resources for combating sexual harassment, that no major concerns or findings have been identified and that our protocols could serve as a model for other schools around the country,” Lewis said.
The government emphasized the list was about investigations of complaints, not judgments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt.
The Education Department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn’t comply with Title IX, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.
The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. President Barack Obama has appointed a task force of Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.
The task force’s report, also released this week, announced the creation of a website — notalone.gov — offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims’ advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campuses.
The department publicized guidance on Title IX’s sexual assault provisions in 2011, and complaints by students have since increased. Complaints, however, don’t always lead to an investigation.
Harvard College students filed formal complaints in late March to the Education Department saying the college did not respond promptly to reports of sexual violence, that students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment, and that in some cases assault victims were forced to live in the same residence buildings as their alleged assailants.
“Harvard has taken a number of steps to foster prevention efforts and to support students who have experienced sexual misconduct,” spokesman Jeff Neal said. They include appointing a Title IX officer to review policies and procedures.
Hefling reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Paige Sutherland in Boston; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; Jennifer Peltz in New York and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khefling .
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