PULLMAN – Sexual violence complaints leveled against Washington State University and the University of Idaho have put both schools on the list of 55 colleges and universities that are being investigated for how they handled reports of assault.
Attorneys from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights visited both campuses in late February.
The sweeping investigations come amid calls for transparency – from the White House down to student groups – on how the universities deal with sexual assault as more complaints are filed.
The 55 schools being investigated range from some of the largest state universities to Ivy League schools and small private colleges.
They include some of the best known and largest public universities in the country including University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University, to Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Princeton.
Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University and Whitworth University were not on the list of schools investigated.
WSU is under investigation for not meeting response and investigation standards as required by Title IX, the federal law best known for guaranteeing equal access to sports for girls and women but that also protects a student’s right to a safe education free from discrimination.
The complaint accuses WSU of not investigating sexual violence cases. Furthermore, it alleges that administrators discouraged victims from reporting and that they purposefully delayed investigations.
“The lack of timely, professional, and appropriate investigation harms students and violates their civil rights,” according to the complaint released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
WSU officials said the school “does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct. Complaints are investigated promptly, and appropriate steps are taken to stop discriminatory behavior, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects.”
Spokeswoman Kathy Barnard added: “WSU takes these issues very seriously. We have proactively and continue to proactively work to improve our programs and processes in this area. Although we know our programs and processes are strong, there is always room for improvement. We will work with (the Office of Civil Rights) to ensure that what we do at WSU is in line with best practices nationally.”
At Idaho, the investigation centers on a complaint by a female student who said she was drugged, raped and choked by a male student during an off-campus fraternity function in September 2012.
UI is accused of “failing to adequately respond” to her complaint and failing to make accommodations for the student, according to government documents.
“I believe that by enrolling this dangerous man into the university and having him around sorority girls as well as another major university only eight miles away that they are putting other girls in danger,” the woman said in the complaint.
Moscow police said there is no police report related to the alleged incident.
Civil rights investigators contacted Idaho in April 2013 regarding the complaint. “The UI takes all complaints of assault very seriously and remains intolerant of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other sexual misconduct,” Bruce Pitman, Idaho’s dean of students, said in the statement. “The UI is steadfast in its commitment to investigate all complaints as quickly as possible and to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to stop discriminatory behavior, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects.”
Pitman said his office has been reorganized to better handle cases of sexual violence, including the hiring of a full-time employee to investigate violations of the Student Code of Conduct and then present the findings to a hearing panel. The coordinator also serves on teams that investigate sexual misconduct allegations.
Among other changes, students are now required to complete an online training course to raise awareness of sexual misconduct and drug and alcohol abuse. And a speaker’s bureau has been established so victims can share their stories with others who have been affected.
“Why a lot of students file complaints is the fact that oftentimes the treatment they receive from the university is even worse than the assault itself,” said Andrea Pino, a national Title IX activist and rape survivor.
An estimated 1 in 5 female college students is sexually assaulted, according to research cited by the White House.
“No (school) probably loves to have their name on that list,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a White House media briefing Thursday. “But we’ll investigate; we’ll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we’ll be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.”
Duncan said while being on the list might feel difficult for schools, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.
“In terms of what’s morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that,” Duncan said.
Pino, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and others filed Title IX complaints last year against their university, which is still under investigation. She also co-founded the Know Your IX website that outlines student rights guaranteed by the act.
Additionally, a White House task force launched the NotAlone.org website this week providing similar information for victims of sexual assault. “There’s a lot more to do, but I think it says a lot when students are willing to take very serious actions to hold their schools accountable and empower themselves,” Pino said.
At WSU the Office of Equal Opportunity conducts investigations after receiving a complaint or a police report, director Kimberly Anderson said. The goal is to complete an investigation as soon as possible, which the U.S. Department of Education suggests should be within 60 days.
A criminal and university investigation into an alleged sexual assault can happen simultaneously. The task force recommends law enforcement and university officials forge an agreement that would “make investigations and prosecutions more efficient.”
“We encourage reporting of allegations and respond to the best of our ability and we care about the issue,” said WSU’s Anderson. “We would certainly never discourage reporting.”
In response to investigations, other colleges and universities have established routine cooperation with police to speed investigations, according to government reports. Law enforcement usually completes an investigation in about seven to 10 days. Police cooperation at WSU and the UI are at the discretion of the victim.
“You can’t blame a university for rape, but you can hold them accountable for the climate that permits it to continue happening,” Pino said. “Universities are afraid to call it rape and afraid to call it a crime. Rather, they continue to call it misconduct and it continues to leave ambiguity.”
WSU disciplinary sanctions for rape include reflection papers, community service, suspension or expulsion.
Dean of Students Melynda Huskey said sanctions are to be educational and address any threats to the WSU community. Rape falls under sexual misconduct at WSU, which ranges from flashing and stalking to unwanted touching and rape.
At the UI, sexual violence sanctions range from temporary suspension to expulsion, according to university policy.
Emilie McLarnan is the assistant director of Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, an organization that provides safety for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The organization collaborates with WSU and UI administrators. McLarnan said she agrees with nationwide activists like Pino in that university disciplinary sanctions need to be changed.
“No sanction is going to undo this crime,” she said, “but a consistent response should be used.”