Assault on campus
Wittenberg University is one of three Ohio colleges with open complaints alleging violations of gender equality laws for their handling of sexual assaults, but university leaders say they’ve made significant changes and federal investigators are dragging their heels.
SPRINGFIELD — For nearly four years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been investigating a claim that Wittenberg officials violated Title IX by failing to adequately respond to a student’s report of sexual assault. A second complaint has been open for more than two years.
University leaders say they are baffled by the delay.
“I have been stunned that we don’t have resolution to both of these,” Wittenberg President Laurie Joyner said.
The cases are among an explosion of Title IX complaints filed against colleges since the OCR sent out a much-publicized “Dear Colleague” letter in May 2011 reminding institutions of their responsibility to promptly investigate sexual violence complaints independent from any law enforcement action.
The university didn’t discuss details of the specific investigations, but highlighted efforts it’s made in the past two years to improve the campus climate, including increased awareness campaigns and an overhaul of the investigation process.
“I feel confident that we have done everything that we can possibly do,” Joyner said. “We’ve done everything that’s been requested of us and we feel very, very confident in our policies and our procedures in place and we look forward to these cases being closed. But in terms of a time table, again, I’m just sort of surprised that it’s been this long.”
On campus, the increased push for awareness and prevention has been noticeable to students, who said Wittenberg previously had a reputation for not addressing student concerns.
“Whenever you go anywhere it’s going to be a problem, but I think that Wittenberg recognized that it was a problem and they’ve reacted really well,” said Mark Wright, a junior resident adviser from Westerville, Ohio.
The Springfield News-Sun requested copies of outstanding and closed Title IX complaints against Wittenberg through the Freedom of Information Act in January.
After three months the Office of Civil Rights released heavily redacted letters that were sent to the university, but denied releasing the complaints themselves, citing federal privacy laws and the ongoing investigations.
The letters indicate both the 2011 and 2013 complaints allege the university, “discriminated against the student on the basis of sex. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the university failed to respond appropriately when the student reported that she was sexually assaulted.”
All details on the university’s investigation, students involved, dates, locations and the manner of assault are redacted.
The OCR also turned over two closed complaints.
One is related to the open 2011 complaint and alleges a sorority that participated in the sexual assault investigation was retaliated against by the university because it was later cited for alcohol violations. The OCR found that complaint to be unfounded and said Wittenberg followed its alcohol policy.
The other was filed in 2014 and closed because the complainant failed to sign a consent form. The details of that complaint are completely redacted.
In May of 2014, when the OCR first disseminated a list of 55 colleges with open Title IX complaints, it included Wittenberg, Ohio State and Denison University in Ohio. Seven months later that list grew to 91 schools nationwide with open complaints.
The University of Akron appeared on that list and Ohio State’s case, involving the former marching band director, dropped off because it had been resolved.
The most recent list, updated Wednesday, includes 132 investigations at 119 institutions across the U.S.
Of those, there are only three that have been pending longer than Wittenberg’s 2011 case.
“I was told it shouldn’t be more than 180 days to wrap up the complaint,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, who has filed complaints against universities on behalf of students in Massachusetts. She’s never seen one completed that quickly. “The schools wouldn’t feel they were being unfairly labeled if it wrapped up in 180 days.”
Wittenberg’s 2011 complaint has been pending for more than 1,400 days. The 2013 complaint for nearly 800 days.
The Office of Civil Rights press office declined to comment on the Wittenberg cases and didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview, but emailed a statement about its procedures.
A Department of Education spokesman said in the statement the goal is to resolve the majority of cases in 180 days, but the actual time depends on the complexity of the issues raised.
“When OCR investigates a school for possible violations under Title IX involving sexual violence, OCR often examines the university culture and reviews the university’s response to complaints of sexual violence over a period of years, not just the facts related to the individual complaint,” the statement says.
In letters sent to Wittenberg the department said it, “intend(s) to conduct a prompt investigation,” according to the documents obtained by the News-Sun.
The OCR makes it clear that appearing on the list doesn’t mean an institution has violated any laws.
But the public reaction to the lists has been negative and for schools like Wittenberg can perpetuate a bad reputation.
“I do think new students or new parents will see the list and if they see Wittenberg University on it, I think it’s just human nature, you think they must have done something that’s not right,” Joyner said.
Momentum of change
Recent graduate Maggi Quigley said the May 2014 list prompted a huge reaction on campus.
“People were posting about it, people were talking about it, people were Tweeting … I think that really started the momentum of change at Wittenberg,” she said.
It’s possible that simply putting out the lists is enough to spur change, Bruno said. The OCR has limited powers to actually sanction schools for violations. But once a school is on the public list, she said many will examine their policies.
“The only thing we have against these schools is the PR nightmare it causes them,” she said.
If the OCR finds that a school has violated Title IX, which is rare according to Bruno, the only legal sanction they can impose is to revoke federal funding. It has never been done.
OCR confirmed that 14 schools have been found non-compliant in 16 cases since fiscal year 2009.
When it makes a finding of noncompliance, the office works with the institution to reach a resolution agreement, making recommendations for changes to address issues raised.
“Through these agreements with schools, OCR has been able to attain strong remedies without the need to initiate enforcement actions,” the office’s statement says. “However, initiating proceedings to revoke federal funds is a tool that OCR will utilize, if necessary, to achieve compliance.”
It’s very likely, Joyner said, that the Office of Civil Rights will make a list of recommended changes when it eventually closes the Wittenberg case and that the school will have already implemented them in the interim.
Many schools, including Ohio State last year, settle their cases before the conclusion of the Title IX investigation by entering into a resolution agreement, OCR’s statement says. Wittenberg has not done so, Dean of Students Casey Gill said, because investigators haven’t presented the university with any issues for resolution.
A ‘flawed’ system
In 2012, during spring semester of her freshman year at Wittenberg, Quigley was sexually assaulted. The Springfield News-Sun doesn’t typically name people who have been sexually assaulted, but Quigley agreed to share her identity and has written about her experience.
The man who attacked her was never criminally charged and dropped out of the university before a student conduct hearing could take place.
But just a brief experience with that process three years ago left a bad impression on Quigley.
“It was very flawed in the way that it was handled. It was a lot of, ‘What were you wearing? Did you give any signals? Did you drink? Were you asking for things?’” she said. “It was very accusatory, focusing on the victim’s actions.”
Her actions? She’d fallen asleep on a friend’s futon while watching a movie and awoke to a male student assaulting her.
She didn’t immediately report the incident to police or the university, and she isn’t one of the students who filed the Title IX complaints. She’d gone through a 15-minute training on sexual assault awareness during freshman orientation earlier that year, but said she didn’t know where to turn when it actually happened to her.
But when other female students started to talk about similar experiences with the same man, they decided to get help together.
Four women initially reported being assaulted by the same student. A fifth later also filed a complaint.
When they were interviewed by university officials, the women said they were barraged with questions about their behavior. What were they wearing? Had they flirted with this guy in the past?
“It was one of those things where they were trying to find every reason why something could be dismissed,” Quigley said. “That was the hardest part. I was already coming forward with something very personal and very traumatic that had happened to me and then to have a lot of questions asked about what did you do or what could you have done to prevent this behavior? I mean I was asleep at the time.”
The fallout from the assaults was the kind of situation Title IX is supposed to prevent. Two of the women dropped out of school, according to Quigley.
“I had a very rough year afterward. It’s a lot to get over,” she said.
Three years later the international studies major has graduated and is heading for a job in Chicago.
She’s seen a shift at Wittenberg in the way sexual assaults are handled and in student attitudes.
“I’ve spoken to survivors who have gone through the newer system and they said it wasn’t as invasive and it was more focused on what transpired, not what their actions were prior,” Quigley said. “That change in wording inspires a lot of people to come forward now.”
Because the Title IX cases remain open, the Office of Civil Rights hasn’t given Wittenberg any directives on what policies need improving, said Gill, who now serves as one of the school’s two Title IX co-coordinators.
“We’ve just proactively changed our policies and they’ve never come back and said, ‘No, you shouldn’t go in that direction,’” she said.
Changes over the past two years include:
- Appointed two Title IX co-coordinators in Student Development and Human Resources to collaborate on implementation. They have done a massive review and revision of Wittenberg’s sexual assault policies and procedures, Gill said.
- Recruited student development professionals to serve as trained investigators. Two trained professionals are assigned to an investigation. All investigators go through required training each year.
- Revamped training of hearing board members and require all members to participate in training annually.
- Changed definitions in university policy to reflect recommendations outlined by OCR in the “Dear Colleague Letter” and the Campus SaVE Act provisions in the Violence Against Women Act.
- Split student development position that used to serve as intake officer and investigatory officer into two positions. “Now there are two different people who serve in those roles so as not to confuse the support that we need to give to the student on the front end and then the investigation process and asking some of the tough questions that need to happen throughout that process,” Gill said.
- Removed university police from the school’s investigations to clarify that the process is separate from any criminal proceedings.
This past school year, the university also implemented an online mandatory training for all students in addition to the new-student orientation program that has been in place for two years.
They’ve also entered into a partnership with Project Woman, which runs a rape crisis center in Springfield.
Executive Director Laura Baxter said she sees a change in attitude at Wittenberg because when she initially reached out three years ago to collaborate, she didn’t get a favorable response.
“There has just been so much change,” she said. “Their partnership now speaks to their commitment.”
One measure of the effects of these changes has been an increase in sexual misconduct cases reported to the university.
In the past three years, Wittenberg has had an average of 21 reports of sexual misconduct or gender-related violence, according to Gill. Those numbers are higher than what has been reported annually via the Clery Act, which requires universities to report crime statistics, because that law sets certain geographical and other restrictions on what qualifies for reporting.
Prior to 2012 the average was one or two a year. The school has about 2,000 students.
There is no reason to believe that the number of sexual assaults occurring on campus has suddenly jumped, Joyner said.
“We favor that as a sign that students feel comfortable coming to us,” Gill said.
The same can be said for an increase in Title IX complaints, according to Bruno.
The “Dear Colleague” letter prompted more awareness of the problem, but these issues were already present, she said.
“It inspires people’s confidence that if they go through the process, they’re not going to be victimized again,” Joyner said.
More work to be done
Some are calling for changes to the Title IX complaint process.
Advocacy group “Know Your IX” has turned over petitions to the White House as part of their ED ACT NOW campaign to give Title IX more teeth. It’s calling for more timely investigations and for more options for sanctions when schools are found in violation.
“If they were able to churn out more (investigations), they’d find more violations,” Bruno said.
Virginia recently became the first state to require that schools include a notation on a student’s transcript if they were suspended or expelled for sexual misconduct or if they left school in the middle of an investigation. The goal is to prevent students from dropping out and transferring to another school where prior acts are unknown. Similar laws have been proposed in New York, Maryland and California.
In the meantime, Wittenberg students and administration say there is more work to be done in Springfield and beyond.
“The problem is more with just students being uneducated about it,” said Britta Carson, a recent Wittenberg graduate who painted chalk signs around campus this spring as part of her senior thesis, “Talk About Assault.”
She and Quigley, who are former roommates, said they believe a more in-depth class on gender-equality, sexual violence and harassment needs to be mandatory for students.
“There is a lot more that can be done. Sexual assault is something you have to handle every year. You have to continue that education,” Quigley said. “Just because the (Title IX list) came out, we’re addressing all of it now, but what’s going to happen in four years when we’re not on the list?”
For Joyner, a trained sociologist who specialized in gender inequality, the issues go so deep that she doesn’t think universities can solve the problem alone.
“The heart of the matter is really about inequality and how inequality gets played out in our personal relationships and how our culture, whether we like it or not, is still male dominated,” Joyner said. “Until we get to the root cause … I think we’re always going to have this issue.”
All the education and legislation and lists in the world aren’t going to solve the problem, she said, unless there is an underlying societal change toward equality and respect.
“In many of these cases it’s that perception that somehow somebody is less than equal, that sort of gives the implicit permission to view somebody as an object rather than a human being,” she said. “It’s much easier to assault an object, a sexual object, than it is an authentic human being.”