POLITICS

There Are Far More Title IX Investigations Of Colleges Than Most People Know

How universities are able to keep these federal probes hidden.

06/16/2016 04:49 pm ET
Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images
A Stanford student carries a timely sign during graduation ceremonies on June 12.

The growing backlog of federal Title IX investigations into colleges and universities has now topped 300, but many people, including students at the schools under scrutiny, aren't aware of those reviews.

As of Wednesday, there were 246 ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education into how 195 colleges and universities handle sexual assault reports under the gender equity law.

Freedom of Information Act request by The Huffington Post revealed another 68 Title IX investigations into how 61 colleges handle sexual harassment cases. This puts the total number of Title IX investigations officially dealing with sexual harassment at 315. (Under civil rights statutes, sexual assault is defined as an extreme form of sexual harassment.)  

But dozens of those Title IX reviews receive no publicity because they don't specifically deal with sexual assault. If a school is being investigated for allegedly mishandling harassment cases, but not reports of assault, it doesn't appear on the list regularly given to reporters by the Education Department. 

Major educational institutions -- including New York University, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Georgia State University, Florida A&M University, Rutgers University, Howard University, the University of Oklahoma, Kent State University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse -- have escaped public scrutiny because Title IX investigations into their actions haven't been highlighted by the government or the schools themselves. SUNY Broome Community College is under three investigations that haven't been previously disclosed. 

The Education Department has no plans to regularly issue a list of cases involving sexual harassment only, an official told HuffPost.

A climate that doesn't take harassment seriously is going to be the same kind of climate where sexual violence cases go wrong. A former Notre Dame student who filed a Title IX complaint

Spokespersons for these schools largely said they hadn't reached out to their students about the investigations because there was nothing they could share -- beyond the fact that a federal review is happening.

Alyssa Peterson, a policy coordinator for the educational and advocacy group Know Your IX, doesn't think that's good enough.

"I think a school should alert its students if it's under investigation for sexual harassment," said Peterson. "Very few will because they're more concerned about reputational costs than the harassment of their students."

Sexual assault survivor activists have used the Education Department's public list of Title IX cases to spur community pressure on schools to make reforms and prioritize sexual violence, Peterson said. She'd like to see the department publicize the full list of sexual harassment investigations.

Schools Facing Sexual Harassment-Only Investigations

Some of the colleges and universities known to be under Title IX investigation for how they handle sexual assault cases turn out to be under previously undisclosed investigations for how they deal with sexual harassment as well.

Stanford University -- already identified as the school facing the most ongoing Title IX probes -- is under a sixth inquiry that doesn't get mentioned. It was opened on July 23, 2015, to examine issues of sexual harassment, including "physical harassment or intimidation" according to the Education Department records. Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the case involves a student and her former boyfriend against whom the school "issued a stay away order."

The Education Department confirmed that a second Title IX probe was opened at Florida State University on Dec. 23, 2015, for sexual harassment issues, including allegations of "insults, slurs, derogatory expressions, verbal intimidation."

The list of sexual harassment-only investigations that HuffPost obtained also revealed additional federal probes involving UCLA, the University of Kansas, Washburn University, San Jose-Evergreen Community College and the University of Notre Dame. 

Hidden Problems At Notre Dame

Several news outlets wrote stories when the renowned Catholic university came under a Title IX investigation in February 2016 for its handling of sexual assault reports. None of the media coverage mentioned that the school was already the subject of three Title IX probes for how it handles sexual harassment issues. 

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) opened two investigations into Notre Dame's handling of sexual harassment on Sept. 11, 2013, based on complaints filed by female graduate students. One of them, a woman who prefers to remain anonymous, transferred because of the harassment. While she said the damage had been done in her case, she filed a federal complaint in hopes of saving other victims from facing similar problems.

But in early 2016, she learned that Notre Dame was under investigation for that later sexual assault case, which allegedly involves a serial perpetrator and multiple undergraduates.

"I've talked to one of the students involved in that," the former graduate student said. "A lot of what went wrong in that case are exactly the same things that me and the other complainant in the sexual harassment complaints were dealing with -- not letting people present evidence, Title IX complaints not being treated as Title IX complaints. The thing that sort of breaks my heart is, had the university addressed the things we had been concerned about in 2013, their complaints would've been handled differently, in a way that would've been less harmful to the students."

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The University of Notre Dame is under four Title IX investigations, but has only acknowledged one of them. 

"A climate that doesn't take harassment seriously is going to be the same kind of climate where sexual violence cases go wrong," the former graduate student said. 

The fourth investigation into Notre Dame, launched in October 2015, is looking at its handling of a threat to circulate revenge porn. The school addressed it as a matter of student misconduct, rather than sexual harassment, according to Laura Dunn, founder of the legal advocacy group SurvJustice.

SurvJustice helped file the student's complaint. Dunn also represented the student who filed the complaint that prompted the sexual assault investigation. 

While Notre Dame has commented briefly about the sexual assault investigation, it has not acknowledged the Title IX inquiries into sexual harassment. A school spokesman did not explain why, except to say broadly that the university would not comment on individual cases.

More Money Would Help

The backlog of Title IX probes, which has frustrated some U.S. senators, can leave complainants wondering for years if they will see any remedy. By her own count, the former Notre Dame graduate student has already waited 1,011 days to find out whether the Education Department agrees that the university violated Title IX in her case.

"I'm very frustrated with how long my complaint has been open," she said.

But she added, "I do think they're doing, if not the best they can, close to the best they can, with the resources they have. They don't have enough investigators."

Besides the simple fact of 315 ongoing cases, the Education Department noted that these investigations are complicated.

"Harassment investigations tend to be highly complex and often involve systemic issues, in addition to issues pertaining to specific students," the department said in a statement. "As part of its investigation process, OCR gathers information through a variety of methods such as data requests, interviews and site visits and analyzes all relevant evidence from the parties involved in the case to develop its findings."

The Education Department has repeatedly requested an increase in funding to add personnel. The Office for Civil Rights staff has shrunk since the 1980s, while the number of complaints it receives has shot up dramatically in recent years. (In the chart below, "FTE usage" refers to the number of "full-time equivalent" workers.)

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights
This chart appeared in a budget justification document submitted with the Obama administration's FY 2017 request.

It might be "one of the few places where throwing money at a problem" would actually fix things, said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, a Barry University law professor who has closely monitored Title IX investigations. 

"The main solution is really to just get OCR more money and more staff," Cantalupo said. "If they don't get more money and more staff, then this backlog is never going to be fixed."

 

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter, focusing on higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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