The University of Idaho is among 55 higher education institutions currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for possible violations of Title IX in handling sexual violence and harassment complaints.
UI Dean of Students Bruce Pitman released the following statement Thursday in response to the OCR’s public release of the list of schools under investigation.
“Student health, welfare and safety is our number one priority. The UI takes all complaints of assault very seriously and remains intolerant of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other sexual misconduct. 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. The UI’s victim care and concern infrastructure is robust, providing initiatives to educate as well as extensive services when sexual harassment and sexual assault occurs.”
According to the statement, the OCR notified UI in April 2013 of a complaint of sexual harassment from March of the same year that the university had failed to adequately respond to. The university also allegedly failed to provide a prompt and effective grievance procedure for the complainant.
The university has cooperated with the OCR by providing all requested information and facilitating a visit from OCR officials in February
The list of 55 schools is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review by the OCR for possible violations of federal law in regard to sexual violence, and is part of President Barack Obama’s initiative to change the culture surrounding sexual assault on college campuses. The list and a PSA featuring Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and many prominent male celebrities is the latest effort from Obama’s White House Task Force To Protect Students from Sexual Assault to bring transparency to the federal government’s enforcement of the laws regarding sexual harassment and assault.
“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear that a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”
Tony West, associate attorney general in the justice department, said one of the offices under his supervision is the Office on Violence Against Women, which has awarded more than $5 billion in grants to efforts to eliminate sexual assault and domestic violence. He said the department plans to award another $4 million this year to continue to address the issues.
“Our work at the justice department is really part of this administration’s effort to address campus sexual assault,” West said. “It’s an effort that not only includes the task force … but also a nationwide tour of 11 college campuses by senior administration officials to raise awareness about this issue.”
West emphasized the task force’s efforts to get men involved in the effort to stop sexual assault. He said he knows that most men on college campuses want to be part of the solution, but that he also knows sexual assault prevention has historically been up to women protecting their drinks, taking self defense courses, only going out in groups and other efforts.
“I’m not saying that precautions aren’t prudent, but that approach suggests that responsibility rests with survivors and I think it lulls us too easily into a blame-the-victim attitude, so we need to shift our thinking,” West said. “We need to do more … to encourage our young men to explore healthy masculinity, how to be strong without being violent, how to recognize and respect what consent and what non-consent means, how to support those men who are survivors themselves, and we need to teach men and women how to be active bystanders.”
Lynn Rosenthal, senior white house adviser on Violence Against Women, said one of the biggest issues the task force heard was that individual schools don’t know the extent of the problem on their campus. In an effort to change this, the task force has worked to develop a campus climate survey they hope can be adapted to fit every university. She said the task force recommends that by 2016 the survey be required for all institutions of higher education.
“When we say climate surveys we mean a survey not just of attitudes or knowledge of sexual assault, but of victimization rates on campus,” Rosenthal said. “Prevalence and incidence. We recommend that schools do this now.”
In addition, Rosenthal said the Department of Education recognizes that sexual assault happens in LGBTQA communities and clarifies that Title IX covers all members of the LGBTQA community as well as all people regardless of immigration status.
Rosenthal said this list is indicative of more reports of sexual assault than usual, but that this may not be a bad thing. Just because the number of reports are going up, doesn’t mean there are more incidents, she said. It might simply mean people are comfortable coming forward.
“There are more complaints than there have been in years,” Rosenthal said. “We’ve had more in this first part of the year than we’ve had before and that’s because students and survivors are using this process.”
In its response to the list released by the DOE, UI representatives said the university believes it fully complies with Title IX, and that it is constantly working to improve policies and procedures in regard to student safety and sexual assault.
The list is comprised of those schools under pending investigation. They are being investigated because they received a Title IX violation complaint.
West said if there are consistent systematic failures to comply with Title IX or any other act that deals with funding for educational institutions, it could result in a larger civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice.
“For instance the department did an investigation of the University of Montana Missoula and there we found over a three year period there was a failure to address student rapes on campus, sexual assaults, other types of sexual violence,” West said. “They were not adequately investigated, not adequately responded to.”
West said the department reached a settlement agreement with UM, appointed a monitor and compiled a comprehensive strategy for improvement.
“Without passing judgment of course, one of the ramifications if a school is systematically on that list for a systematic failure is a civil rights investigation,” West said.
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at email@example.com