OCR Stays Busy on Sexual Assaults

May 12, 2014

The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights had a busy Friday afternoon in its stepped-up campaign to combat campus sexual assault, announcing a striking set of findings at the Virginia Military Institute and resolving an unusually public dispute with Tufts University.

Regarding VMI, the civil rights office announced that the military institute had violated federal law in how it handled sexual harassment and assault cases and by requiring pregnant cadets to leave the institution.

Federal investigators determined that “female cadets were exposed to a sexually hostile environment” at VMI and that the institute did not promptly and equitably resolve cadet complaints about sexual harassment and sexual assault, as it is required to do under the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX.

The institute’s policies also illegally required that pregnant and parenting cadets resign or face separation from VMI, the department said in a statement, adding that the OCR has already negotiated changes to those policies.

The civil rights office and VMI have entered into a resolution agreement to resolve the Title IX complaint. Under the agreement, VMI will be required to, among other things, conduct annual climate assessments concerning sexual harassment and assault, provide annual training on sexual assault prevention, and revise its tenure and promotion policies.

VMI said in a statement it was “profoundly disappointed with OCR’s findings.”

“We signed this agreement not because we feel the findings are representative of the VMI environment; but rather, it is in the best interest of the Institute to cooperate with OCR and put an end to this six-year investigation,” the statement said. It continued: "VMI is committed to providing a safe environment in which cadets can learn, in which faculty members can teach, and in which staff members can support the Institute’s mission.”

VMI has a long history of conflict with federal officials over its approach to women, as the federal government went to court two decades ago to force the formerly all-male institution to admit women.

Toe to Toe with Tufts

The civil rights office also announced Friday that it had reached agreement with Tufts to resolve an unusual dispute over how to settle a finding that the university’s handling of sexual assault cases violated federal law.

University and federal officials said Friday that Tufts had formally recommitted to the signed agreement that it backed out of earlier this month, which prompted a warning from the Education Department that the university’s federal funding may be in jeopardy.

Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, confirmed in a statement Friday that the university was no longer in breach of the agreement.

“I congratulate Tufts University for taking swift action to cure its breach of its April 17 agreement with” the department’s Office for Civil Rights, she said. “I look forward to working with [Tufts] President [Anthony] Monaco and the university community to ensure the safety of all students on campus.”

Monaco “officially” recommitted to the signed agreement during a meeting on Thursday with Lhamon, the university said. Following student protests on campus, a university spokeswoman first said last Friday that the university was recommitting to the agreement.

The standoff began last month when Tufts withdrew from an agreement it had signed nine days earlier to resolve a Title IX complaint against the university. The Education Department responded by saying that Tufts had breached the agreement and warned that officials might seek to cut off the university’s federal funding if the matter was not resolved in 60 days.

At the time, university officials said they were backing out of the agreement because they had signed it under the understanding that federal officials were concerned only with a previous violation of Title IX on the campus, not a current issue. The university said it strongly disagreed with the conclusion by the Office for Civil Rights that its current sexual assault policies violated Title IX.

The department’s announcement about the Tufts case came as the Obama administration was promoting its efforts to push colleges to clamp down on sexual assaults. The administration also publicly named, for the first time, all of the 55 colleges that the Education Department is probing for their handling of sexual assault cases.

 

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