From huge state universities to small colleges and the Ivy League, 55 schools across America are facing federal investigation for the way they handle sexual-abuse allegations by their students.
For the first time, the Education Department revealed its list of colleges under investigation Thursday — though no details of the complaints — as the Obama administration sought to bring more openness to the issue of sexual violence on and around the nation’s campuses.
The schools range from public universities, including Ohio State, the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State, to private schools including Knox College in Illinois, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. Ivy League schools including Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth are also on the list.
The government emphasized the list was about investigations of complaints, not judgments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt.
Few details of individual cases are known, but some are. One, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, involves allegations of mishandling of a matter involving a football player. The investigation began after federal authorities received complaints related to the expulsion of Brendan Gibbons, a former placekicker.
A student group examined the school’s student sexual-misconduct policy and last month determined the university failed to explain a years-long delay between the reported incident and Gibbons’ expulsion in December. Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the university has been “fully cooperating.”
Schools on the list, for the most part, were unwilling to talk about specific incidents but said they have been working with the federal department to be more responsive to student complaints.
“We are hopeful at the end of this there will be a resolution that will strengthen our internal processes and result in a safer community,” said Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson. “There’s always something we can learn and ways to get better.”
The college investigations are done under Title IX of a U.S. law, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees girls and women equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions’ handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.
The agency previously would confirm such Title IX investigations when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.
Duncan said 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, 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,” Duncan said during a White House briefing.
The department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn’t comply with the law, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.
About half of all states have schools under investigation.
Massachusetts has six, including Harvard College.
While being on the list might be difficult for schools, Duncan said, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual-assault victims on American college campuses.
“In terms of what’s morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that,” Duncan said.
The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. President Barack Obama has appointed a task force of Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have said non-compliance under the law is “far too common.” They say a lack of federal resources is partly to blame for that, and they’ve sought more money to ensure timely and proper investigations.