The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has concluded a four-year investigation into Ohio State University, reaching an agreement with the university to ensure its compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Unlike many other Title IX investigations, this review was not initiated by a federal complaint, but rather was a proactive inquiry that broadly examined several areas where Ohio State could improve how it addresses sexual violence and harassment on campus. The department is still investigating 78 other institutions.
Such compliance reviews, even when settled amicably, as was the case here, provide an indication of the kinds of things OCR is looking for when examining colleges. The department reached a similar agreement with the State University of New York last year.
During the investigation, Ohio State established a "one-stop" Title IX webpage and office, formed a sexual violence consultation team that meets bi-weekly, and developed online training modules about bystander intervention. The university also made "substantial improvements" in how it documents sexual assault investigations, the department said. "The university will maintain comprehensive documentation of its receipt, investigation, and resolution of all oral and written complaints, reports or other notice of sexual harassment," according to the resolution agreement.
Previously, the department had found that Ohio State had failed to keep clear and consistent records of cases of sexual violence, and the office had trouble even telling if some cases had been addressed or not.
The Office for Civil Rights was particularly impressed with how the university recently handled complaints about sexual harassment and hazing within its renowned marching band. The university's own inquiry, which the university said was done without OCR's prompting, led to the release of a detailed report about the band's culture and to the firing of the band's director, Jon Waters. Waters's dismissal prompted outrage among many current and former band members.
"We appreciate the timeliness of the university's initiation of the investigation and the university's ongoing efforts to address sexual harassment," Meena Morey Chandra, a regional director with OCR, wrote in a letter to the university that was obtained by Inside Higher Ed. "In particular, your strong statement to the school community expressing 'zero tolerance' for any behavior that creates a hostile environment for students communicates an essential message of safety for students."
In a statement Thursday, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the department, said she "applauded" the university for its leadership and for using the case to set "clear and vitally important" expectations on campus.
Some of Waters' supporters questioned the timing of the agreement and the director's firing.
"It is terrific that Ohio State's administration has agreed to steps to bring the Title IX process at the university into compliance with the law," said Gary Leppla, an Ohio lawyer and a spokesman for the band alumni. "However, the reference to the marching band is both disturbing and revealing. This raises new questions and perhaps fuels some suspicions concerning the reason for creation and release of the fully discredited report, which was lacking both in its review of the facts and due process for the director."
Leppla said that band alumni will hold a press conference today and release a 100-page report challenging the university's findings. David Axelrod, a lawyer representing Waters and threatening Ohio State with a lawsuit, told the Associated Press that Thursday's announcement confirms his suspicions that the university "rushed to judgment to appease the government as it investigated."
Ohio State denies the OCR investigation or agreement affected its decision to fire Waters.
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