SMU under federal investigation over handling of sexual violence complaints

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By MELISSA REPKO, Staff Writer

Southern Methodist University was included on a list released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education of 55 colleges and universities facing a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual assault complaints. File 2010/Staff Photo

Southern Methodist University is among 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation over their handling of sexual violence complaints.
The U.S. Department of Education released the list of schools Thursday — two days after a White House task force promised more government transparency about sexual assaults on college campuses. However, the department would not provide any details on individual complaints or investigations.
Courtney Underwood, co-founder of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, said the list may encourage parents and students to research how their college or prospective college handles sexual assault reports.

“They are going to check that list,” she said. “This is going to become a part of college rankings.”

The only other Texas school on the list is University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.

The investigations are done under the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination, including sexual violence and harassment on college campuses. It requires universities to investigate all sex crimes and to have an internal grievance procedure to handle sexual assault reports.

It was the first time the Education Department has revealed such a list. The government stressed that the investigations are open and it has not determined whether the universities or colleges have violated the law.

The 55 schools ranged from big public institutions like Ohio State University and the University of Michigan to smaller private schools like Vanderbilt University and Harvard University.

Some investigations were prompted by complaints directly to the federal department. Others were triggered by news stories and other factors, the department said.

College task force

SMU has faced scrutiny over its handling of sexual assault cases. In 2012, SMU President R. Gerald Turner appointed a task force to review the university’s sexual misconduct policies after the Dallas County district attorney’s office raised concerns. The school has already implemented some of the task force’s 41 recommendations.

The matters under federal investigation were already reviewed by SMU and predated the university’s task force on sexual misconduct policies, said SMU spokesman Kent Best.

He said federal investigators have asked to review records in three cases.

“One involved a complaint of inappropriate language in a classroom, one involved an alleged sexual assault that was later dismissed by the Dallas County district attorney’s office, and the third case is currently the subject of litigation,” Best said in an email to The Dallas Morning News. He said that only one of the cases involves an assault.

Best said administrators are reviewing the new White House report, will compare it to SMU’s task force recommendations and will make any necessary changes.
In a news release, SMU said it “has been aggressive in putting into practice wide-ranging new procedures to inform and protect our students, to provide prompt and effective resolution of complaints, and to hold violators accountable while treating all students fairly.”

The university commended the Department of Education’s “efforts to eradicate sexual violence on college campuses and to provide universities with additional tools to combat sexual assault. Our goals are the same.”

The Obama administration has made sexual violence on college campuses a focus this year and appointed a task force of Cabinet members to draft national guidelines to help universities prevent sexual assaults and properly respond to to them.

The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. Most of the sexual assaults occur in the student’s freshman or sophomore year, and many are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, according to the report.

New website

The task force’s report, released Tuesday, announced the creation of a website,, offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims’ advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campuses.

The White House task force called on universities to conduct a campus climate survey next year and said it may require the survey starting in 2016.

The Education Department pledged to keep an updated list of schools with open Title IX investigations. In the past, the department would confirm an investigation but did not publish a list or publicize the names of universities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during a White House briefing Thursday that there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that transparency is important.

“No one probably loves to have their name on that list,” Duncan said. “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.”

The department can terminate federal funding if a school violates Title IX, but it has never done so. It usually reaches a negotiated resolution, said Dorie Nolt, an
Education Department spokeswoman.

Nolt said the department cannot discuss specifics of the SMU investigation. She said it was opened in 2011.

Changes made

Last spring, SMU’s task force issued a report that recommended new education and prevention efforts, more sexual assault counselors and more ways for students to report campus crimes. University officials say they’ve already implemented some of them, such as redesigning SMU’s health and safety website, and requiring incoming students to take a two-hour online course about sexual assault prevention.

Underwood, who was an SMU task force member, said the university took positive steps but must continue to create a climate where victims feel safe to come forward.
SMU was sued by a student this year who says she was raped by an acquaintance in a campus dorm. Her lawsuit says SMU is liable because it “knew of at least one prior attack on a student” by her alleged attacker. The lawsuit says SMU failed to provide proper guidance during the campus disciplinary process, such as answering procedural questions.

Court records include a letter sent to SMU’s president by the student’s mother. In the letter, she wrote that her daughter “suffered ridicule, name-calling, and harassment from other students” and heard of students who “refrained from coming forward because of her type of experience and their lack of trust in SMU’s system.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Schools facing Title IX investigation
The following schools are listed as being under open investigation as of May 1, 2014:
• Arizona State University
• Butte-Glen Community College District
• Occidental College
• University of California-Berkeley
• University of Southern California
• Regis University
• University of Colorado at Boulder
• University of Colorado at Denver
• University of Denver
• University of Connecticut
• Catholic University of America
• Florida State University
• Emory University
• University of Hawaii at Manoa
• University of Idaho
• Knox College
• University of Chicago
• Indiana University-Bloomington
• Vincennes University
• Amherst College
• Boston University
• Emerson College
• Harvard College
• Harvard University – Law School
• University of Massachusetts-Amherst
• Frostberg State University
• Michigan State University
• University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
• Guilford College
• University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
• Minot State University
• Dartmouth College
• Princeton University
• Cuny Hunter College
• Hobar and William Smith Colleges
• Sarah Lawrence College
• Suny at Binghamton
• Denison University
• Ohio State University
• Wittenberg University
• Oklahoma State University
• Carnegie Mellon University
• Franklin and Marshall College
• Pennsylvania State University
• Swarthmore College
• Temple University
• Vanderbilt University
• Southern Methodist University
• The University of Texas Pan-American
• College of William and Mary
• University of Virginia
• Washington State University
• University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
• Bethany College
• West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.

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