WASHINGTON – Despite the rise of the #MeToo movement, most of the nation’s largest public universities are less than transparent about how they handle sexual assault cases on campus.
A six-month-long investigation by Capital News Service found that among the 25 largest public universities, very few were willing to make public data about sexual assault reports, how many investigations they conducted annually and how many cases resulted in disciplinary actions or convictions.
In fact, among the 25 schools, 13 provided no information. Of those 13, eight did not answer repeated calls, five more failed to respond through their communications departments, two declined to answer any questions, and one failed to answer a public records request it said it required.
CNS made more than 70 telephone calls and sent numerous emails to all 25 schools.
Federal law requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal student aid programs to file annual reports listing statistics for sexually-based crimes. But the reports do not detail how the schools pursue and resolve such cases.
While the #MeToo movement that grew out of high-profile scandals involving celebrities has heightened public awareness of sexual assault and sexual harassment, institutions of higher learning appear to have more of their own learning to do, critics said.
“There’s a lot of incompetence, there’s a lot of ignorance, and there’s a lot of deliberate indifference,” Elizabeth Tang, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based non-profit group that advocates for justice for women and girls, told Capital News Service in an interview.
CNS asked each of the 25 largest public universities, selected based on the 2019 ranking by U.S. News & World Report, to supply data on the number of sexual assault investigators they employed, the average time to investigate a complaint, the number of reports of assault received, the total number of claims investigated, and the number of convictions that resulted from prosecution.
Of the universities that did respond, CNS found:
- The University of Maryland-College Park, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of California-Davis, and the University of California-Berkeley stood out for self-reporting sexual assault data, creating easy to access brochures and infographics categorizing assault claims, reporting specific numbers, and making information readily accessible to the public.
- The number of investigators at each Title IX office varies from school to school.
For example, Texas A&M University-College Station, with 53,065 students, has four investigators, while the University of California-Irvine, with 29,307 students, has twice as many investigators.
- Most schools did not make public how many sexual assault claims are investigated and how many result in disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.
- Investigation times, which under proposed federal regulations are not quantified, also vary from school to school. None of the schools provided specific numbers or data about their average investigation times.
“The length of time for an investigation varies depending on specific circumstances, levels of participation, amounts of evidence, and the number of witnesses for each case,” Shilpa Bakre, spokeswoman at the University of Texas-Austin, said in an email.
Federal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration recommended that investigations be completed within 60 days. However, current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rescinded the Obama-era recommendations.
The University of Maryland-College Park had promised a 30-day investigation period and a 30-day sentencing period, according to survivors.
However, according to survivors, schools may and do take much longer than their promised times.
Survivors who want to get results need to “keep making a fuss, be annoying,” explained Faith Ferber, a former student of American University and student organizer for Know Your IX. “You pay tuition to go to that school, do not stop demanding accountability and transparency, and don’t fall for the…PR lines that they take sexual violence very seriously and are committed to being transparent. We know that’s not true, otherwise, this information (on investigation and outcome statistics) would be there (readily available).”
McLain Rich, the founder of Preventing Sexual Assault (PSA) and a sexual assault survivor from the University of Maryland, got her assailant expelled.
She said it took a lot of effort and calls to the office to make her voice heard.
“I think a big part of it must have also been that I was creating a buzz and a stir through my activism,” Rich said.
Although she got the result that she wanted, Rich said she was very disappointed by how long it took the Title IX office to investigate her claim and make a determination.
“It was an eight-month-long investigation where I had to worry about seeing him on campus,” Rich said. “I was not sleeping because I was worried that he would retaliate. It was a very paranoid time of my life.”
Federal law requires some disclosure
Under a 1990 federal law called the Clery Act, universities are mandated to disclose the number of certain types of crimes that are reported each year to local police or the school. This includes the number of incidents of sexual assault (including rape), domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking that are reported to local police or to school officials, including (but not limited to) school police, security guards, deans, coaches, club advisors, and Title IX officials.
But according to an analysis done by The American Association of University Women (AAUW), 89% of campuses claimed in their Clery Act reports for 2016 that they received no reports of rape; that percentage was identical in 2015 and at 91 percent in 2014. That contrasts with an Association of American Universities Campus Climate survey study that found that more than 1 in 5 women, nearly 1 in 18 men, and nearly 1 in 4 transgender and gender-nonconforming students are sexually assaulted during college.
“Not every victim or survivor is going to have the same preference to what they wanna do moving forward,” said Abby Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center, a non-profit organization that assists colleges and universities in complying with the reporting law. “Some people are coming forward and making a report to the institution because they want access to resources, they want accommodations, and they want to feel safer in their environment after a traumatic incident.”
“So just because a report is made, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that student or that individual is planning to pursue the disciplinary process,” she said.
The low number of reports can be attributed to students being reluctant to report for personal reasons, or it could simply be that universities are in violation of the Clery Act by underreporting sexually violent crimes, critics say.
Many universities are unwilling to publicize sexual assault information out of fear of appearing to have dangerous campuses, according to critics.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the federal government prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded education program. Schools are required to take steps to address sex discrimination, including sexual harassment or assault. This includes conducting investigations when claims are filed.
But the Clery Act does not require universities to divulge statistics regarding how they are responding to sexual assault claims and offers few guidelines, advocates for more open records said.
New legislation targets shortcomings
A bipartisan bill introduced last year in the House by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, proposed tougher reporting requirements for campus sexual assault cases and penalties for schools that failed to comply. The measure was not voted on in the Republican-controlled House. She reintroduced the measure in June; the House now is controlled by the Democrats.
Speier’s Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Violence Act, a bipartisan bill with 50 cosponsors, aims to strengthen prevention efforts and to hold perpetrators and schools more accountable for sexual violence on campus.
Morgan Dewey, spokeswoman for the organization that helped shape the bill, End Rape on Campus (EROC), explained that the HALT Act would give the Department of Education authority to fine schools as much as $100,000 for violating the Clery Act by failing to report crime statistics, including sexual violence crimes. The bill would also make public the names of colleges and universities under investigation for violating the Clery Act and Title IX.
Speier’s measure also would create a federal sexual violence task force to make recommendations to Congress.
“Part of the problem with the whole Title IX response is that universities weren’t given a lot of guidance early on how to really be helpful in crafting a response,” said Josh Bronson, former lead investigator of the University of Maryland’s Title IX Office. “What you end up having are campuses that were maybe trying to do the right thing but really didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing, because they were scared of getting in trouble.”
“I’m way more surprised when I hear about people who have had great experiences with reporting sexual violence through the student conduct process,” said Ferber.
Some standouts for reporting
The five schools providing online information about campus sexual violence contrasted sharply with other institutions that declined to discuss the issue.
“The reason why the University of Maryland…did it was because we thought it was important for transparency, for people to understand what’s going on, good or bad, within the process,” Bronson said.
At other schools, obtaining sexual assault information is more problematic.
For example, the director of the University of Florida’s Title IX Office, Russell Froman, said he simply did not know if the office recorded the sort of sexual assault data that CNS requested and was unsure what happens to cases once they are passed on to the school’s Office of Student Conduct.
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, declined to divulge any information. When asked by CNS if the staff was not allowed to release the data or simply didn’t have it, Judy Ryan, the university-wide Title IX coordinator, said, “I’m not going to answer either of those questions.”
An employee with Pennsylvania State University’s Title IX office insisted for months that its sexual assault data “was in transition” and therefore, not available. After multiple follow-up questions, it still was unclear what a transition of data entailed.
Speier’s legislative team explained in an interview that part of the reason that institutions aren’t rushing to make public information about sexual assaults is that it may make schools appear less safe and potential students may consider going elsewhere.
The main issue is that schools are concerned that by being forthcoming, they might get punished for their honesty. Although the University of Maryland was being transparent by releasing the statistics, it received backlash by the community for the percentage of complaints that resulted in a finding of responsibility. Out of the 27 cases investigated, 5 resulted in expulsions (18.5%).
However, even among the schools that provided some data or information, it often was incomplete or did not directly address the information requested.
The University of Georgia responded to an email request for the data with, “The office does not compile data in the manner that you have requested.”
Maryland, Michigan, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley all reported on the number of complaints received and created elaborate, comprehensive reports that went beyond what the Clery act mandates.
Those five schools received an average of 222 reports each academic year. The five schools only investigated a low percentage of the student complaints filed.
For example, in the 2017-2018 academic year, the University of Maryland received 249 “potential complaints of sexual misconduct” and 91 student complaints. Out of those 91 complaints, the university resolved 16 through formal investigation (17.5%). The University of California-Davis received 231 undergraduate student complaints and resolved 21 of the complaints through formal investigations (9%).
Few reported disciplinary actions
An even smaller percentage of claims led to some sort of disciplinary action. At Maryland, five cases resulted in disciplinary action and just one of those cases resulted in expulsion (2017-2018). At UC-Davis, 10 of the investigations resulted in either suspensions or expulsions, according to the school (2017-2018).
“Some Title IX offices and coordinators are excellent and truly dedicated to their jobs, and are on the side of student safety,” Tang said. “But there are a lot of students who are suing really bad actors who have really failed their students and have just completely abdicated their responsibility to protect their students.”
Tang said that Title IX coordinators often decide whether to investigate a complaint by taking into account who the person being accused is, the perceived credibility of the person filing the complaint, whether or not they think it would be harmful to the school’s reputation, and whether the police are involved. She said these factors in fact have no bearing on a school’s legal duty to investigate every complaint.
“What we see time and time again is that the folks that are being victimized by sexual assault have less power and fewer resources than their abusers,” Tang said.
“There’s this huge asymmetry between male responding parties who can afford lawyers and female reporting parties who can’t,” said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators. “For a lot of those victims – male, female or otherwise identified individuals – who know they can’t afford good legal advice going in, if the other side has high-paid lawyers, I think it’s going to create a powerful incentive to not persist.”
A former staff member at Title IX office of the University of Maryland who asked not to be identified said that unfortunately, survivors would have a better chance at winning their cases if they hired legal help.
Critics also are worried that there is no paper trail for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to audit university Title IX offices and make sure that the offices are doing their work correctly.
Bronson said that “there are many states now that are starting to mandate that, but until it becomes part of the law…yeah, you’re not going to have campuses just doing that (self-reporting Title IX investigation statistics).”
Critics see trouble in federal oversight
If a student filing a sexual assault complaint feels the university’s Title IX office did not go through protocol or investigate fully, that student can submit a complaint with the Education Department’s civil rights office.
However, survivors and advocates CNS interviewed believe that office under the Trump administration does nothing to investigate these cases.
“This administration is not doing anything to enforce civil rights,” Tang said. “Every single leader that has been appointed in this administration has been actively devoted to dismantling civil rights in the area of the laws they oversee.”
DeVos “is actively dismantling civil rights protections for sexual assault survivors, undocumented students, students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and we’ve seen it in every single action she’s taken,” Tang added.
Speier’s legislative team is also concerned with the changes that the Trump administration has been trying to carry out at the Office for Civil Rights.
Asked to address the allegations, a spokesman for the agency declined to be interviewed over the phone and requested emailed questions.
CNS sent a list of questions, including inquiries about the Office for Civil Rights’ average investigation time for claims filed against university Title IX offices and whether that office could address charges that it was ineffective.
Three weeks after the questions were sent, an agency spokesman who declined to be identified by name wrote: “The length of time required to complete an evaluation depends on many factors, including the complexity of the issue and the clarity of the complaint.”
Ferber opened an investigation against American University’s Title IX Office in 2015, and she has yet to hear from the Office for Civil Rights.
DeVos proposing new reporting rules
Last November, DeVos proposed a new set of rules governing campus sexual assault that would reduce the liability of colleges and universities for investigating sexual misconduct claims and, according to the secretary, bolster the due process rights of those accused, including the right to directly cross-examine, through an advisor, a person filing a complaint.
“Throughout this process, my focus was, is, and always will be on ensuring that every student can learn in a safe and nurturing environment,” DeVos said. “Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined. We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it while ensuring a fair grievance process. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas.”
But the administration is going in the wrong direction, Dewey and others said.
“This administration has continually harmed survivors. We are fighting against an administration that sweeps sexual assault under the rug; an administration that has perpetrated violence against many people.” Dewey said. “The Department of Education and Betsy Devos, under the guidance of this administration, has put forward new Title IX guidance… that would further harm survivors.”
Dewey said that when the Department of Education was in the process of creating this new Title IX guidance, the agency said it would be meeting with survivors throughout the process. End Rape on Campus was present at the first survivor meeting, but at no others after that.
“During that meeting, Betsy Devos was not engaged. She was not listening to survivors, and they said that that would be the start of a continuing conversation,” said Dewey. “Despite efforts to continue that conversation, there were no further conversations with the Department of Education before they released their dangerous Title IX rule.”
Dewey said that the department did, however, continue to meet with Men’s Rights groups, such as The National Coalition for Men (NCFM).
The NCFM was also an adamant supporter of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, even amid all the controversy surrounding the sexual assault allegations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Devos also met with multiple groups that historically support the rights of those accused of sexual assault, such as Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE).
“I think that is an illustration of their priorities and how they were intending their rule to be shaped,” said Dewey.
The proposed rule had a 60-day comment period during which it received more than 100,000 comments, the most that the Education Department has ever seen on a proposed rule.
Before the rule can be applied, the Department of Education is required to consider and respond to all substantive comments, according to Jacob E. Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor who consults on disputes involving federal administrative agencies and Title IX proceedings in higher education.
The review period could take a few months to a year, experts estimate.
Ferber charged that it is almost a waste of time to try to ask the Office for Civil Rights to be held accountable because “we know they don’t care. We know that Betsy Devos doesn’t care. She’s not hiding that at all.”
She believes it is important for students to push for change on the local and state level instead of focusing on the federal level.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are fighting, and it’s an uphill battle because this administration clearly has no respect, care, or consideration for trauma-informed or survivor-centered policy,” said Dewey.
Rich said her experiences with reporting and Preventing Sexual Assault have discouraged her from turning to legislators and schools for change. She believes that preventive measures such as education are the only reliable way to change what she views as a sexually violent culture.
“Through education, people have really realized that they could completely ruin another person’s life by just not simply checking in (during sexual encounters) and getting the consent that they need,” said Rich.
“Sexual violence is a crisis. We are in a national crisis. We are hearing more and more survivors come forward with their stories.” said Dewey. “Survivors have always been telling their stories, but finally society is starting to listen.”
UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES CONTACTED BY CNS:
Schools where information is publicly available online
University of California-Berkeley
University of California-Davis
University of California-Santa Barbara
University of Maryland-College Park
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Schools that declined to answer questions
Pennsylvania State University
Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Schools that never answered calls
Georgia Institute of Technology
Texas A&M University-College Station
University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
University of Washington
Schools that directed CNS to communications departments that did not respond
College of William and Mary
Purdue University-West Lafayette
University of California-Irvine
University of California-Los Angeles
University of California-San Diego
School that did not provide information after requiring a public records request
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Schools that provided partial or limited answers to CNS questions
The Ohio State University
University of Connecticut
University of Florida
University of Georgia
University of Texas-Austin
University of Virginia