The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will investigate Occidental College over allegations the Los Angeles-based school failed to properly look into and adjudicate claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus, according to a letter sent by the OCR and obtained by The Huffington Post.
A group of 37 students, faculty and alumni filed a federal complaint against Occidental in April, contending that the school did not adequately discipline students found guilty of sexual misconduct, created a hostile climate for sexual assault victims and violated federal mandates under Title IX, a non-discrimination law.
In its response to the complainants, received on Wednesday, the OCR said it was formally opening an investigation.
"Because OCR has determined that it has jurisdiction and that the complaint was filed timely or qualified for a waiver of the timeliness requirement, it is opening these allegations for investigation," wrote Charles R. Love, program manager at the OCR. "Please note that opening the allegation(s) for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits. During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the complainant, the recipient, and other sources, as appropriate."
The Education Department will look into claims that Occidental employees and students who advocated for new policies and procedures on sexual harassment and sexual violence were met with retaliation by administrators, the letter said, adding that federal law prohibits the college from retaliating against anyone who participates in the OCR investigation.
Caroline Heldman, chair of Occidental's politics department, rejoiced at the news of the inquiry. Heldman, along with a group called Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, has pushed the college's administration to reform its policies for several years.
"In a sense, it's a vindication of the survivors' stories that their claims are real and legitimate," Heldman said. "I'm just really happy that all of our work has led to this, this day, the start of a real investigation and not one run by the administration."
The college had earlier hired two outside lawyers, Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez, to help the administration review and reform its policies for handling reports of sexual assault. That review is separate from the Education Department's investigation.
Occidental did not return a request for comment.
The college faces a second federal complaint alleging that it failed to properly document sexual assaults and issue timely alerts to the campus as mandated under the Clery Act. The Education Department's Clery Act compliance division has not made any announcement about whether it will investigate that complaint.
The OCR opened a similar investigation earlier this year into the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's sexual assault procedures. That university also hired Smith for advice in reforming its sexual assault reporting policies. And the women who filed the complaint against UNC assisted the individuals at Occidental in preparing their grievance against the California college.
Earlier on HuffPost:
University Of Colorado - Boulder
CU-Boulder has two federal complaints against it, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/18/cu-boulder-sexual-assault-investigation_n_3614277.html" target="_blank">opened one</a> for investigation.
Students at Swarthmore College <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/18/swarthmore-federal-complaint-sexual-assaults_n_3110445.html" target="_blank">filed a Title IX civil rights</a> complaint and a Clery Act complaint <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/sexual-assaults-mishandled-dartmouth-swarthmore_n_3321939.html?utm_hp_ref=college" target="_blank">which alleges the college </a>underreports sexual assaults and fails to respond to properly handle reports of sexual misconduct and harassment. The college promised to launch a review of their policies, and began <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/19/swarthmore-sexual-misconduct-reform_n_3624016.html" target="_blank">announcing reforms</a> in the summer of 2013.
After Angie Epifano wrote a lengthy op-ed about her experience trying to report a sexual assault at Amherst College, the school <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/amherst-college-sexual-assault-policy-review_n_2002874.html">started an internal review</a> and a revamp of their policies.
University Of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina began looking into their own policies after students and a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/16/unc-sexual-assault_n_2488383.html">former administrator filed two complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights</a>. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/06/unc-sexual-assaults_n_2823522.html" target="_blank">university now has</a> three federal investigations launched by the Education Department, including one into whether the university <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/07/unc-investigation-retaliation_n_3555886.html" target="_blank">retaliated against </a>one of the complainants.
University Of Montana
Update: The DOJ found the<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/09/university-of-montana-rape_n_3247466.html" target="_blank"> university botched rape </a>reports. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/feds-examine-response-to-_0_n_1470286.html">May 12, 2012 </a>report from AP: MISSOULA, Mont. -- The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the way Missoula police, prosecutors and the University of Montana have responded to reports of sexual assault and harassment after the agency learned of complaints that cases were not being properly handled. The investigation was disclosed Tuesday after a preliminary examination conducted earlier this year concluded there was enough evidence to move ahead with a full probe, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said. Lawyers from the Justice Department's civil rights division will look at all 80 sexual assaults reported by women in Missoula over the past three years. Eleven sexual assaults involving university students have been reported in the past 18 months. Prosecutors were trying to figure out whether those university complaints were included in the total number of citywide assaults reported.
Oklahoma State Sexual Assault Reporting - Reviewed By University Task Force
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/oklahoma-state-sexual-assault-report_n_2317687.html">Dec. 17, 2012</a>: <blockquote>It took nearly a month for Oklahoma State University officials to tell police that a single student had been accused by several others of sexual assault, prompting confusion and outrage over the lengthy delay. On Thursday, OSU President Burns Hargis announced he asked the Board of Regents' task force to review the school's handling of the sexual assault complaints. The task force was formed in July to review school policies and ensure a situation like the Sandusky scandal at Penn State does not unfold at OSU. Hargis said in a statement that OSU "cannot leave any doubt that we are indeed properly and appropriately handling sexual misconduct allegations," Tulsa World reports.</blockquote>
University Of Notre Dame
University of Notre Dame Under Federal Review After Second Family Complains About Assault Allegations Mishandle <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/19/university-of-notre-dame-_n_825396.html">Feb. 19, 2011</a>: <blockquote>The University of Notre Dame has been placed under federal review by the U.S. Department of Education following two incidents of reported sexual assault that occurred this academic year.</blockquote>
Two years after the Ivy League school went under a federal investigation, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/yale-sexual-assault-punishment_n_3690100.html" target="_blank">students and alumni once again say</a> the university fails to properly <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/23/yale-sexual-assault-punishment_n_3786885.html" target="_blank">handle sexual assaults</a> and harassment. <a href="http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/15/yale-settles-charges-of-sexual-discrimination/#ixzz2Ly8bXen3">June 15, 2012 report from Time magazine</a>: <blockquote>The Department of Education announced on Friday that it had resolved a complaint that Yale University had failed to eliminate sexual discrimination on campus. The complaint, filed by a group of 16 current and former students in March 2011, stemmed from an incident on campus on the evening of Oct. 13, 2010, in which members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity marched across the Yale campus to a dorm where many female students lived and chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!” A video of the chanting men was posted online and quickly went viral, spurring an uproar at the university and nationwide.</blockquote> Yale <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/15/yale-clery-act_n_3280195.html" target="_blank">was fined $165,000 </a>by the feds.
Southern Methodist University -- Launches Task Force After String Of Sexual Assaults Reported
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/12/southern-methodist-sexual-assaults_n_1959302.html">Oct. 12, 2012 report</a> from HuffPost: <blockquote>Two students in separate cases were arrested last month on sexual assault charges. However, it raised eyebrows as people noted it took eight months to bring charges in one case while only a few days in the other. In response to the controversy, SMU announced a special task force to review how the school handles reports of sexual violence. Administrative action aside, problems persist on the Texas campus. On Wednesday, just a day before the first task force meeting, students received a crime alert warning of another sexual assault; this one allegedly targeting a young woman in her apartment west of campus by an acquaintance and fellow SMU student. The incident became the fifth sexual assault reported this year and the third in the past six weeks to go under investigation by University Park police. At least 40 sexual assaults were reported since 2006, according to the SMU Daily Campus, and almost all of them from SMU students. Over the past 25 years, more than 100 women at SMU reported being sexually assaulted.</blockquote>