That leaves 105 schools on the list, including four schools that have been under investigation for more than three years. Since announcing investigations of 55 institutions in May, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has closed only those six investigations while opening another 56.
Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, protects students, faculty and staff in any federally funded educational program from sex-based discrimination. The 112 open complaints at 105 schools allege that the schools violated students’ Title IX rights by inadequately or inappropriately responding to reports of sexual assault.
VMI was removed from the list after OCR found insufficient evidence of a Title IX violation, Stewart D. MacInnis, the school’s director of communications and marketing, said. According to OCR, VMI is the only school that has been removed for insufficient evidence. The case had been open since July, but a prior Title IX investigation, in which VMI was found in violation, ran from June 2011 to May 2014.
“If you want to say there was a benefit from the previous investigation, it is that we were prepared to handle this complaint in an appropriate manner,” he said.
OCR released the letter Tuesday via email, with some information redacted. Exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act allow OCR to redact information to protect personal information from an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
VMI declined to release the Department of Education’s letter of findings. In doing so, MacInnis cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA.
“If a record doesn’t have identifying information about a student in it, then it’s not a FERPA record anymore,” he said.
As a national conversation brings more focus to campus sexual assault, OCR is struggling to keep up with the rising number of complaints filed by students who allege that their universities have violated their Title IX rights. OCR tries to complete the process within 180 days of opening an investigation.
But 43 schools have been under investigation for more than a year. Four have been under investigation for more than three years.
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said the office has an enormous workload after complaint numbers doubled and her staff decreased by 30 percent. She applauded a provision in President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget proposal that would increase the office’s budget by 30 percent.
“I don’t think there’s an increase in civil rights violations in the world,” Lhamon said. “I do think there’s an increase in belief in our ability and willingness to respond to them. I hope to continue to earn and honor that belief in our work, and I’d like to have more people with us to do that.”
Aryle Butler, a consultant at End Rape On Campus, which helps students file complaints with the Department of Education for Title IX violations, is one of many complainants in the investigation against the University of California at Berkeley. The UC Berkeley complaint was originally filed by 31 students, but OCR has now talked to more than 40 students, fellow Berkeley complainant Sofie Karasek said.
Butler said the cause of the delay could be any number of things, from the amount of work involved in the investigatory process to politics and size of the university.
“When you’re dealing with an institution that large, sometimes the scope of the problem is very difficult to see,” Butler said. “It can get larger, and larger and larger the more and more you look.”
Because the investigation process is shrouded in confidentiality, it can be challenging for the public to know where investigations stand. Some complainants at Berkeley are members of End Rape On Campus, which has publicized its involvement with the complaint. Not all complainants speak publicly.
She called for stronger enforcement of Title IX and the Clery Act. Passed in 1990 as the Campus Security Act, the Clery Act requires colleges to report crimes on campus annually. The law, which applies to institutions that receive federal money for student financial aid, also requires universities to issue warnings if there is a threat to campus safety, have an emergency notification policy, publish an annual fire safety report and have a policy to handle reports of missing students.
That stronger enforcement may come from provisions in the proposed Campus Accountability and Safety Act, reintroduced in February by 12 senators. The act would impose fines of 1 percent of a university’s operating budget for noncompliance with Title IX.
Now in Title IX investigations, OCR negotiates a resolution agreement if it finds the university in violation. If no resolution is reached, the only penalty for Title IX violations is the withdrawal of all federal funding, a route the Education Department has never used. The bill would also raise the fine for Clery violations to $150,000 from $35,000.
Karasek said multiple victims have reported problems with administrators, including that they failed to investigate reports, been uncommunicative with victims and discouraged students from reporting.
Janet Gilmore, director of strategic communications at Berkeley, said an administrator named in the complaint has denied one of the allegations against her.
When OCR negotiates an agreement with a university or finds the university in violation, however, it will not recommend that any administrators be removed from their roles, a policy that Butler said frustrates her. OCR negotiates policy changes to bring the university into compliance.
But Butler said she is still hearing complaints about administrators’ response to possible violations.
“And sometimes, there are even worse problems being reported, which is highly discouraging because what we want to see is, we want to see improvement and that’s not what we’re seeing,” she said.
Lhamon, the assistant secretary at the Education Department, said the increase of investigations is partially because of increased public attention to sexual assault on college campuses. It has become part of the conversation on campus.
“So many of our colleges have proactively responded to the guidance that we put out in 2011 to try to find ways to come into compliance, and I really applaud them for taking that important step forward, too,” Lhamon said.
The investigations may be slow, but Saunie Schuster, a partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a legal consulting firm that works with colleges and universities, said the increased attention is a positive step. In 2011, OCR sent a Dear Colleague letter, which reminded schools about their Title IX obligations.
“That was the proverbial knock upside the head,” Schuster said. “And, as I said, it was really reinforced.”
Echoing Lhamon’s concern that lack of manpower is slowing investigations, Schuster said the process requires investigators to go through a great deal of material.
“The average size of materials that the schools provide is … 15 three-inch binders of hard-copy material,” she said.
As the investigation wears on, Butler said, OCR has become more responsive and receptive to holding schools accountable. But she said she feels that the UC Berkeley investigation is now at a standstill and that resolution agreements set up by OCR don’t do enough to enforce Title IX.
“I think what’s being born out of this movement and being born out of these investigations, even though they’re taking so long, is this demand for response and for firmer response,” she said.
Long investigations are burdensome for students who are on campus for only a few years, Karasek said.
“When you have one in four or one in five women on college campuses being sexually assaulted, and you only have a couple dozen people working on these things, it’s just not enough,” she said. “I think that’s one of the big problems is that, especially because these investigations are happening on college campuses, it’s really important that they be timely and expedient.”
Reach reporter Allison Kite at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.