NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Federal civil rights officials are investigating complaints by Yale University students that the Ivy League university has a sexually hostile environment and has failed to adequately respond to sexual harassment concerns.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights confirmed Friday that it has begun an investigation at Yale. The office gets about 7,000 complaints per year and investigates about one-third of them.
The complaint, sent March 15, alleges that the university failed to respond promptly or effectively to incidents of harassment, resulting in the denial of equal opportunity, the office said.
Yale said it will cooperate with the investigation and takes such allegations "extremely seriously."
The students cite incidents in which fraternities held up a sign "We love Yale sluts" outside a women's center and chanted "no means yes" on campus last fall. They also say incoming female freshmen were ranked on attractiveness.
The complaints also include allegations that Yale failed to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault or attempted assault and stalking, said Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale junior who is one of the 16 complainants. She would not disclose the number of complaints or the documentation the students filed.
Brodsky said the students and former students who signed the complaints were "really frustrated and disappointed that Yale again and again fails to respond to both public and private acts of sexual harassment and assaults which creates an environment in which women feel devalued."
"It creates barriers to these women participating in all aspects of Yale life and it perpetuates an environment in which these sort of acts are ok," Brodsky said.
The complaint also alleges the university has an insufficient grievance process for addressing claims.
Yale officials said they can't respond to the complaint because they have not received it, but they will respond fully to the inquiries.
"The University has initiated a number of programs in recent years as part of its continuing effort to respond effectively and appropriately to incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment," Yale said in a statement. "We assure members of the community and those beyond our community that Yale does not tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct."
Brodsky said the office of civil rights will perform what they call a "climate check" by interviewing complainants, other students, faculty and administrators.
If the investigation finds Yale violated a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, the university will likely have to make policy changes such as stepped-up education and better notification of how victims can report concerns, said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women. She welcomed the investigation, saying it shows the office of civil rights is paying renewed attention to the issue.
Maatz said her organization concluded after a study in 2005 that the problem is common at colleges.
"It's a good wake-up call for all schools," Maatz said. "There's a real climate problem. You can't learn if you don't feel safe."