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SUNY Sexual Assault Investigations Had Many Problems, Federal Review Finds

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SUNY ALBANY
The State University of New York Plaza in Albany, N.Y., in 2005. (AP Photo/ Jim McKnight) | AP
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NEW YORK -- A federal investigation of four campuses that are part of the State University of New York, the largest U.S. system of public higher education, found the schools' handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints did not comply with gender equity law.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on Thursday announced a resolution agreement with SUNY that ends a multi-year review of University at Albany, SUNY Buffalo State, Morrisville State College and SUNY New Paltz. The probe considered 159 complaints of sexual violence from the 2007-2008 academic year to 2010-2011.

The review found SUNY at odds with the federal gender equity law Title IX. The voluntary resolution agreement includes changes to the way the campuses handle sexual violence complaints.

Investigations of sexual assault and harassment treated the accused and the accuser unequally in many instances and often did not provide written documentation of the judicial outcomes to both parties, the Education Department found.

New Paltz' policy allowed the accused to request a copy of the judicial hearing transcript, but did not indicate whether the complainant may do so. Buffalo State and Morrisville State allowed the accused to appeal a judicial outcome, but not the complainant. New Paltz informed the accused of appeal rights, but not the complainant. Albany told the complainant of appeal rights, but not the accused.

Policies for adjudicating harassment at Albany, Buffalo State and Morrisville lacked time requirements, the Education Department said. New Paltz had a 90-day limit on filing a complaint, although some universities have no such statute of limitations, the department said.

Albany and Buffalo State placed the burden of seeking and providing evidence in an investigation on the victim and the accused perpetrators, a practice the Office of Civil Rights said raises concerns.

The review found each SUNY school reviewed presented incoming students with training and workshops on sexual misconduct, harassment and relationship violence. Students in workshops indicated they felt the schools provided adequate resources.

Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant education secretary for civil rights, lauded the university system for entering the agreement and making policy changes.

"Nearly 219,000 students across the 29 state-operated campuses may now expect to go to school in an environment free from sexual violence and other forms of sexual harassment, thanks to this resolution," Lhamon told reporters Thursday. "We look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with SUNY to implement this agreement."

The agreement requires each SUNY campus to have a designated Title IX coordinator who will annually review all formal and informal complaints, overhaul grievance procedures and allow a way for students to complain of sexual assault 24 hours per day. The agreement also allows victims who go through the judicial process to suggest ways to improve the effectiveness of campus sexual harassment policies and procedures.

"Each campus will conduct annual climate checks to assess the effectiveness of its steps taken to provide for campuses free of sexual harassment and sexual assault/violence," Timothy C.J. Blanchard, director of the Office of Civil Rights in New York, wrote in a letter to the SUNY chancellor's office.

SUNY spokesman David D. Doyle said the Education Department's release of the review and the resolution agreement should be viewed in a positive light.

"The successful culmination of this review affirms and recognizes that SUNY campuses across New York are now national models for Title IX compliance and training," Doyle said. He declined to address specific problems highlighted by federal officials.

New Paltz spokeswoman Melissa Kaczmarek said "the college has responded proactively to OCR by reviewing and strengthening our procedures and taking the steps recommended by OCR to ensure that existing policies and procedures comply fully with Title IX standards."

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