The University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are among 55 higher education institutions under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over how they handle sexual violence and harassment complaints.
The department Thursday released the list of schools being investigated for possible violations of federal law amid a White House push to bring more transparency to complaints filed by students — who allege colleges are more interested in protecting their image than in prosecuting offenders.
No case details were disclosed, but an attorney for a former U.Va. student said he filed suit in March in an effort to force OCR to react more quickly to complaints.
James R. Marsh said the department has taken “an inordinate amount of time” to investigate allegations about how the university handled his client’s 2011 rape case.
The Education Department said the list, which includes all schools with pending cases as of May 1, is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review. Schools are liable under Title IX regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in programs receiving federal financial assistance.
A White House task force this week released new guidelines for colleges to combat rape on campus, citing studies that 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted while they are students. The task force also launched a website, NotAlone.gov, to aid victims filing complaints.
U.Va. — the focus of another high-profile case aired before the State Crime Commission in November 2011 — said the university has been working with OCR since summer 2011 on a review of policies.
“The university has worked to provide OCR any information needed, and will continue to do so,” spokesman McGregor McCance said by email.
He said sexual misconduct is an issue U.Va. “takes very seriously.”
In February, U.Va. held a conference “intended to launch a national discussion among higher education communities on the complexities surrounding sexual misconduct among college students,” he said.
Those complexities are reflected in the suits Marsh filed in March in U.S. District Court in Washington — one seeks to press OCR to hold U.Va. accountable and another action challenges new provisions of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act.
Supporters say the SaVE reforms put more responsibility on colleges to stop assaults, but others, including Marsh, contend the changes allow the schools to place a greater burden of proof on victims.
The suit, filed under the name Jane Doe, alleges U.Va. officials destroyed or withheld from the sexual assault board key evidence, including photos showing her injuries after she was drugged and raped by another student.
Marsh said he is encouraged the Department of Education is investigating a large number of colleges and universities, but “our pending lawsuit seeks to ensure the timeliness and completeness of those investigations.”
The government as well as the schools need to be held accountable, he said. “After more than 18 months, our client and other students at U.Va. are left wondering whether or not the university is in compliance with even the basic requirements under Title IX.”
The suit has parallels to another U.Va. case that played out publicly before the State Crime Commission in fall 2011 when a former student challenged why her 2004 rape case was handled through a campus disciplinary procedure rather than a criminal court.
The student’s mother, Susan Russell, said Thursday that the Education Department told her recently her daughter’s case is still under investigation.
She said she is not impressed by the White House’s actions this week.
“To me that’s nothing but hollow talk and paper work,” she said.
Stricter requirements for reporting assaults “mean nothing if they don’t also report how the crimes are adjudicated,” she said. “It’s not going to change how the schools do business.”
The Education Department said it is investigating a U.Va. case that was initiated June 30, 2011, and a William and Mary case initiated March 31, 2014.
A department spokesman said he could not immediately say whether other cases are pending.
W&M spokesman Brian Whitson said the college had “received notification about a complaint made to the Office of Civil Rights and we are working with them to provide the information they requested.”
He said the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibits him from discussing the details of the specific case that led to the complaint “but, in general, I can tell you sexual-assault response and education is an area we are very focused on.”
“We continually look at our own practices to determine if they can be improved or enhanced,” he said by email. “Since this is a broad review of our policies and practices by OCR, the result may well provide us valuable information as we continue to look at new ways to address an issue that confronts every university in the country.”
Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, the University of North Carolina and Penn State are among other schools on the list, which Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon called an effort “to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights.”
She said appearing on the list “in no way indicates at this stage” that a school has violated federal law.
“We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue,” she said in a statement accompanying the list.