Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Thursday a review of how the department investigates sexual assault in schools, saying it’s time to replace the Obama administration’s “failed system.”
Rolling back Obama-era guidelines
It’s a first step toward rolling back stricter Obama-era guidelines for handling sexual assault, potentially changing how the Department of Education handles hundreds of sexual violence cases brought by students at universities, colleges and K through 12 schools that receive federal funding.
In a speech Thursday to a group of about 100 invited guests at George Mason University’s law school outside of Washington, D.C., DeVos said the department will begin collecting comments from the public about its investigations of Title IX sexual violence cases.
“The current approach does a disservice to everyone involved,” DeVos said. “That’s why we must do better.”
She credited the Obama administration’s Education Department for spotlighting the issue of campus sexual assault, but said it “weaponized” the department’s investigative Office for Civil Rights, overlooking the rights of the accused and burdening school systems with confusing and elaborate guidelines for handling Title IX claims.
Sexual assault survivors concerned
Advocates for sexual assault survivors are concerned DeVos will ease guidelines put forward in 2011 that increased schools’ Title IX responsibilities for investigating and responding to sexual assault.
The 2011 guidance also led to a surge of Title IX sexual violence complaints filed at the Education Department from college and university students and from families of K through 12 students, a group that tends to receive far less attention.
The department has a goal of clearing each investigation within 180 days, but a Scripps News analysis found K-12 cases are an average of about 17 months old, almost three times the six-month benchmark. The oldest open K-12 complaint dates back to 2010. Cases languishing for years can mean an agonizing wait for resolution for the students, those accused of wrongdoing and the school districts placed on a publicly available list of pending Title IX cases.
“This system, failed system, has generated hundreds upon hundreds of cases in the Office for Civil Rights, mostly by students who believed their schools let them down,” DeVos said.
In 2011 the Office for Civil Rights under President Obama sent a memo to schools saying their Title IX responsibilities required immediate investigation of sexual violence claims. It also said schools must act even when police investigations are underway, and said schools must have procedures for students alleging sexual assault to appeal their cases to the Education Department. The letter, combined with greater awareness about campus sex assault, led to a surge in sexual violence complaints at the Office for Civil Rights, from 33 pending cases at both the college and K-12 level in 2011 to 513 cases today.
The backlog includes the case of a 7th grade boy who reported being raped in a bathroom stall by a fellow student during a lunch break at a public school in Northern Virginia. His parents, Deborah and Martin, asked that their last names not be published to guard the privacy of their son.
The parents filed a Title IX sexual violence complaint against Fairfax County Public Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, saying the district mishandled their son’s assault claim, violating his civil rights.
“Our aim by going to the Title IX route is to force some accountability for the school here,” said Martin, the father of the Virginia student who reported the assault. “They can perform an investigation. They can find out what happened. There are some remedies they can apply and hopefully no one else at the school will have to go through this.”
Deborah said the assistant principal waited until the end of the day to call her and described the incident involving her son as a game of chase, later saying there might have been some inappropriate touching.
After hearing her son’s version of the story over the weekend, the boy’s parents said they demanded that the school resource officer investigate their son’s claims. The officer recommended the boy go to the hospital, where a nurse said it appeared he had been sexually assaulted. By then it was too late to obtain biological evidence for police. “The school didn’t protect our son,” Deborah said.
A spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools said federal law prevents discussing the student’s claim. He said the school system vigorously pursues and investigates all allegations of inappropriate behavior by students and staff, including allegations of sexual harassment and Title IX violations.
Deborah and Martin’s son now attends private school, suffering PTSD-like symptoms.
The family, the accused student and the school district have all been waiting two years for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to resolve the case. They have heard nothing since an initial interview by the Office for Civil Rights. The office investigates sexual assault and harassment claims against colleges and K-12 schools that receive federal dollars when a student’s Title IX rights may have been violated.
Title IX protects against discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and can include cases of sexual assault and harassment. Victims or their parents can file complaints at the Office for Civil Rights when they feel their schools did not adequately investigate their cases.
The probes can expose widespread problems with how individual schools and school districts handle sexual misconduct. The outcomes can include prescriptions for schools to provide new training for employees and develop new methods to report and track sexual abuse.
Supporters of sexual abuse survivors are concerned DeVos will ultimately shortcut investigations.
“Ultimately, getting through the complaints matter but we want to make sure they are robust investigations and understand systemic issues that are going on,” said Anne Hedgepeth at the American Association of University Women. “We have always said OCR needs more resources.”
Instead of seeing more resources, the OCR might lose manpower. The Trump administration has proposed reducing the number of staff at the Office for Civil Rights. The proposed 2018 budget would eliminate 46 positions in the office, leaving a staff of 569. It would continue the downward trend in staffing levels since 1980.
“The Office for civil rights has some of the lowest number of employees it's had since the ‘80s with some of the highest numbers of complaints coming in,” Hedgepeth said.
The staff cuts are necessary to pay for raises and other fixed costs, the Education Department said. The budget for next year calls to keep funding levels flat.
“Concerns that OCR’s new approach will limit investigations or preclude addressing systemic or class-action type issues are misplaced,” an Education Department spokesman said in an emailed statement. But its own budget request said the planned staff cuts could lengthen Title IX investigations.
“At the reduced (staff) level, the number of days to complete investigations may continue to increase,” the Office for Civil Rights budget request states.
Open investigations at Ohio universities
News 5 found there are 10 Ohio universities with active sexual violence investigations — totaling 19 cases. Three Ohio school districts also have open Title IX sexual violence investigations — including Berea, the Cleveland Municipal School District and North Olmsted.
The following universities have open cases:
Cleveland State University — One case opened Aug. 31, 2015. The complaint alleges that the university did not provide the victim with an equitable grievance process."
The Ohio State University — Three active cases: Aug. 12, 2015;Jan. 3, 2017 and July 31, 2017. The Jan. 3 case revolves around an alleged sexual assault by a university professor at an academic conference.
University of Akron — Two active cases: May 6, 2014 and May 25, 2017.
We will review the Secretary’s comments in detail in the days ahead, but we want to reaffirm our commitment to maintaining a safe and welcoming campus that protects the rights of everyone, including both victims of sexual assault and those who are accused. This is a difficult balancing act as the two processes that are involved – the legal system and university policies and procedures –are conducted in different ways and venues.
Concerning the two Title IX complaints that have been filed relating to The University of Akron, we continue to cooperate with the Office of Civil Rights in the U. S. Department of Education and provide the Office with the information they have requested. Due to federal privacy laws affecting students, we are unable to discuss these matters.
Cleveland State University statement:
Cleveland State University strongly opposes and does not tolerate discrimination, harassment or sexual violence and has put in place polices to ensure a safe environment for all.
CSU cannot comment on open cases, but affirms that it adheres to its policies and commitment to respect and fairness in all matters.
Miami University statement:
Today Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans to establish a federal rule-making process to address sexual misconduct on campuses. No immediate changes were announced.
Miami University remains committed to complying with Title IX and its assurance of fair and equal educational opportunities.
That commitment includes maintaining a healthy and safe learning, living, and working environment for all students, staff and faculty and to creating an environment that promotes responsibility, dignity, and respect in matters of sexual and interpersonal conduct.
The university provides an array of services to victims/survivors of Title IX offenses while working tirelessly to ensure that the disciplinary system and procedures are fair to all involved.
Kenyon College statement:
The College continues to cooperate with the Office for Civil Rights but we cannot comment further on an open investigation. Kenyon will continue to enforce its established policies and promote a campus environment free from sexual harassment and all forms of sexual intimidation and exploitation.
College of Wooster statement:
Yes, I can confirm that The College of Wooster has two open Title IX cases under review by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, but I can’t comment on the specifics of those cases since both investigations are ongoing. I can say that Wooster is working tirelessly to develop a culture of sexual respect by educating the student body, faculty, and staff, implementing transparent policies and procedures, and doing everything possible to eliminate sexual violence from our campus.
The Ohio State University statement:
We will monitor and review any changes that result from the federal rule-making process announced today and, as always, will adhere to federal guidance. Our university policies were written to achieve gender equity and fairness and create a safe and healthy campus climate for our students and for all members of the university community. Programs like Buckeyes ACT and Buck-I-CARE are part of this ongoing, comprehensive effort to stop sexual misconduct, prevent its recurrence, eliminate any hostile environment, and remedy its discriminatory effects. Ohio State does not tolerate sexual misconduct or discrimination under any circumstances, and that will not change.
The university does not comment on ongoing investigations.
University of Cincinnati statement:
The University of Cincinnati makes every effort to follow all Department of Education requirements and guidelines to resolve sexual assault and other Title IX-related complaints, and to continually monitor and update the processes we use in responding to any incident of sexual misconduct reported to us. Due to federal confidentiality requirements, we cannot address the specifics of any individual case. Our goal, as an educational institution, is what's best for all our students in terms of safety, fairness and support.
Oberlin College statement:
Oberlin College has long sought the best strategies to provide a fair, equitable, and inclusive educational environment free of all forms of discrimination, harassment, and violence and is cooperating fully with the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights regarding its ongoing investigations.
Oberlin College will not tolerate any type of sexual and/or gender-based harassment, discrimination, and violence, and is committed to taking all appropriate steps to eliminate all forms of sexual misconduct, prevent their recurrence, and address their effects. We are also committed to ensuring that our processes are fair and equitable to all involved.
John Carroll University statement:
Due to privacy laws related to student educational records and the fact that this review is ongoing, we are unable to provide specific information about this matter. We do want to make clear that the University is committed to providing a safe, supportive environment for all members of our University community.
Alex Leslie, the senior education services director for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, says the investigations are meant to examine the process by which the schools handled the cases.
"So it doesn't necessarily mean that something happened wrong," he said. "It means somebody walked away from that process feeling frustrated."
DeVos did not say when the review would conclude and did not outline a timeframe for potentially changing Title IX investigations.