Southern Methodist University violated Title IX when it failed to provide a “prompt and equitable response” to the alleged sexual assault of a male student by another male student in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday. The university then failed to protect the victim from further harassment and embarrassment following the assault, the department said, leading him to drop out.
The student’s claims are outlined in a resolution letter the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent to SMU this week, concluding a three-year investigation that began with a separate complaint in 2011 and eventually grew to include a third complaint in 2013 and a review of the university’s responses to sexual assaults dating back to 2009. The investigation concluded that the male student “was subjected to a sexually hostile environment as a result of the sexual assault and that he continued to be subjected to a sexually hostile environment as a result of the university’s inadequate response to his reports of retaliatory harassment."
Title IX violations and subsequent resolution agreements do not often stem from the complaints of male students, partly because of the scarcity of reported cases of sexual assault against men. With its decision against SMU, victim advocates said, the Education Department affirmed that Title IX protects students of all genders.
“Because of pervasive myths about who ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ be a rape victim, male survivors often aren't provided the same remedies and protections in schools as female survivors," said Dana Bolger, co-founder of Know Your IX. “These are protections they deserve and are owed under the law.”
The male student, referred to as Complainant 3 in the letter, was a freshman when he was allegedly sexually assaulted twice in one morning by an older fraternity member from a prominent SMU family. The freshman reported the assault to the SMU police department and an SMU staff member, according to OCR, and SMU’s provost, associate provost, dean of student life, and chief of police were all informed of the incident. The Title IX coordinator was not.
“Complainant 3 informed OCR that he was not provided information from the SMU Police Department concerning his Title IX rights” the letter stated.
SMU police conducted its own investigation, but a police report was never given to the Title IX coordinator and university officials outside the police never conducted their own Title IX investigation into the assault. The university suspended the accused student and referred the freshman to campus counseling services. The SMU chaplain and chief of police spoke to the accused’s fraternity, and the victim’s professors were told to accommodate him if he was unable to complete exams or coursework.
The university also issued a campus crime alert about the assault, identifying both the victim and suspect as male students. Eventually word spread about who the two male students in the crime alert were, and “Complainant 3” was harassed by various students on campus. Members of the alleged assailant's fraternity allegedly texted the victim facetious invitations to come to their house. His dorm roommate began teasing him with text messages of shirtless men, eventually prompting the student to find new housing.
According to a lawsuit filed by the student against SMU, the resident assistant for his new floor was a friend of the alleged assailant. In the lawsuit, the student also claims he asked the university not to identify his gender in the crime alert, a request it ignored. The harassment continued after the student switched housing, he told OCR. The university did not investigate his claims, instead telling him to report the incidents to police if he felt unsafe.
SMU’s associate provost told OCR that the accused student was “well-liked” and “powerful in the Greek system,” and that the freshman “was not wrong to think that he could cause people to dislike him.” The assailant is the great, great grandson of a member of SMU's founding committee and was highly involved in the university's interfraternity council. In his lawsuit, the victim alleges that the accused student's prominent family factored into the university's "deliberate indifference" toward the assault and harassment, and that the alleged attacker used his influence to threaten the victim's scholarship.
The suspect was eventually charged with sexual assault, but those charges were later dropped, despite his admitting the assault in a phone call recorded by police. In the end, both students withdrew from the university.
OCR stated that its investigation “established that Complainant 3 reported to SMU on multiple occasions that other students were harassing him with threatening and taunting comments, text messages, phone calls and visits to his room, and that the university did not investigate these concerns.” But in a statement Thursday, SMU said it disputed some of the investigation’s conclusions, and that it was “troubled that OCR did not follow the policies outlined in its Case Processing Manual for the review and disposition” of the male student’s case, which is still pending in federal district court.
SMU also noted that some of the complaints predate the recommendations made by a 2013 sexual assault task force created by the university.
“We are concerned that the OCR letter contains some generalizations that mischaracterize the facts,” Kent Talbert, special counsel to SMU and former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, said in the statement, adding that he was also “concerned that OCR appears to have grouped together a broad list of inquiries and allegations with a smaller number of formal complaints filed under Title IX.”
The other allegations include that a professor made “gender-based” comments to a female student, referring to her as “bitchy,” “catty,” “a prom queen,” and a “hired bimbo.” The professor also allegedly told his class that not paying attention to specific details was “like looking at a beautiful woman only she’s wearing dirty panties.” Students complained about the remarks and the professor was required to receive sexual harassment training, but, according to OCR’s letter, he was not forced to apologize, nor was he monitored for further outbursts.
Another complaint, from a former SMU employee, alleged that the university “had a pattern of not responding appropriately to complaints of sexual harassment” and that many students did not know where to turn when they were sexually assaulted.
In its resolution agreement, the university did not admit any wrongdoing, but promised to adopt several new policies, many of which were rolled out over the last year while the investigation was ongoing. As part of the agreement, SMU will report to OCR about its ongoing effort to adopt the recommendations of its task force; conduct annual climate surveys; train staff and students on its revised sexual assault policy; notify students about the university's Title IX coordinators and how to contact them; provide reimbursement to the male student; and develop procedures for sharing information between the SMU police department and the Title IX coordinator.
Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Studies and a law professor at Western New England University, said the male student's case was likely not the result of universities not understanding how to apply Title IX to differing genders, but rather the result of continued misperceptions about how to ensure Title IX and law enforcement efforts coexist.
“OCR's interpretations of university's obligation under Title IX to respond to sexual harassment, going all the way back to 1997, have always made clear that those obligations are the same whether the victim is male or female,” Buzuvis said. “I think there's more confusion around the fact that universities' obligations are co-extensive with those of the police.”
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