Feds probing 55 colleges in handling of sex assaults

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Thursday identified 55 colleges and universities-- including Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University -- that are under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints, an unusual step meant to increase pressure on the institutions to crack down on their campuses' problem.

It was the first time the Education Department had made public a comprehensive list of colleges under investigation for potential violations of federal anti-discrimination law under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law prohibits gender discrimination at colleges that receive federal money.

The colleges under investigation include Ivy League institutions such as Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton; other private universities such as Boston University, the University of Chicago, Swarthmore and the University of Southern California in addition to Carnegie Mellon; and public universities including Florida State, the University of Michigan and Ohio State in addition to Penn State. The list includes less-well-known institutions such as the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

The list was made public three days after the White House released a report drafted by a sexual assault task force aimed at pressuring schools to better comply with federal law and prevent sexual attacks. "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," Catherine Lhamon, assistant education secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights said in January that it was investigating whether Penn State's handling of allegations of sexual violence committed by students or staff is in compliance with federal law because of a dramatic increase in forcible sex offenses reported on campus. On a campus of 45,783 students, such offenses rose from four in 2010 to 56 in 2012.

Penn State has said it is cooperating with the investigation.

Carnegie Mellon said in a statement: "We have been and will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. ...

"For many years, we have had policies and practices in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and we have adjusted them over time to make them more effective and assure that they comport with applicable laws, regulations and agency guidance. In light of the important new guidance issued earlier this week by the White House Task Force and Department of Education, we are again reviewing our policies, procedures and education/training initiatives to make certain that they are consistent with the new guidance. ..."

Another campus cited, Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va., just west of Washington, Pa., issued this statement:

"The college first learned of the complaint filed from the Department of Education this week, and it is based upon an alleged sexual assault that was reported to the college this fall. ... At that time, law enforcement launched an investigation that ran concurrent to the internal student conduct investigation that the college initiated. The matter was investigated by local and state police and taken to the Brooke County grand jury, where they did not produce an indictment in the case.

"We feel strongly that we have fully complied with both the spirit and the letter of the law ... "

The Education Department announced Monday that Boston's Tufts University had failed to comply with the federal law by allowing a sexually hostile environment to persist at the institution. The finding, resulting from a department investigation of a 2010 complaint by a student who said she was sexually assaulted, determined that Tufts had "failed to provide a prompt and equitable response" to sexual harassment and violence complaints, as required by the Title IX law.

The Obama administration, which has stepped up civil rights law enforcement, zeroed in on colleges and universities after a series of highly publicized campus assaults. The problem has also been a Capitol Hill focus, as lawmakers have taken on sexual assault in the military, where similar cultural issues and institutional truculence have bedeviled the process.

The White House task force found that nearly 20 percent of female college students have been assaulted, but only 12 percent of cases are reported. It concluded that many women feared that their reports might become public, discouraging them from coming forward.

The task force recommended that colleges provide better assurance of confidentiality to those reporting crimes; conduct standardized, anonymous surveys on campus assaults; and replicate a program at the University of Kentucky and other colleges training bystanders in how to intervene.

Since 2011, when the Education Department sent a letter to universities warning that they needed to follow up more on sexual assault complaints, an increasing number of students have won large damage awards in sexual assault cases filed against their colleges.

The letter emphasized that complaints could be successfully pursued through the department's civil rights office, which victims say is less cumbersome than filing complaints through lawyers. Universities typically have tried to keep suits quiet.

The White House task force said the Education Department would post resolution agreements and compliance findings for these and recently settled cases.

Post-Gazette staff writer Mary Niederberger contributed.

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