It took the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, on average, 1,469 days to complete campus sexual assault investigations in 2014, according to data released Tuesday by three Senate Democrats. The average time it took to resolve a complaint in 2009 was 379 days.
This past winter, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Barbara Boxer and Tim Kaine wrote to the department requesting more information on how the Office for Civil Rights investigates complaints that colleges have mishandled cases of campus sexual assault. The office is currently investigating more than 100 colleges over allegations that they failed to fairly investigate and adjudicate cases of sexual violence as they are required under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
In a reply sent to the senators in April, the department said that a shortage of staff and a massive increase in the number of complaints -- spurred by the federal government's increased focus on the issue -- has left the office scrambling to complete an ever-increasing caseload with far fewer resources.
The senators said the duration of these investigations illustrates why Congress should increase the office's funding.
OCR attempts to complete its investigations in 180 days, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the department, and James Runcie, chief operating officer for federal student aid, said in the letter. But cases are often open far longer than that. The average length of investigations completed in 2015, so far, is 940 days.
“These cases need to be resolved more quickly,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation's 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. “It is not justice for anyone when an investigation lasts so long. Steps need to be taken to expedite these investigations. Ideally, the department should try to come much closer to that stated goal of 180 days. Frankly, that needs to happen.”
Last year, OCR concluded several of its longest-running investigations. An investigation at Harvard Law School lasted four years, as did an investigation at Ohio State University. Investigations completed last year at Princeton University and Southern Methodist University lasted about three years.
That the department finally wrapped up these lengthy cases is part of the reason 2014 saw such a spike, OCR said. In 2013, the average length of an investigation was 478 days.
“This explains in part why the average duration of Title IX sexual violence investigations has been higher in recent years,” the letter stated. “OCR expects that these averages will decrease as the agency closes out its oldest sexual violence cases and if, as we hope, Congress increases OCR’s appropriation to allow OCR to manage its current and projected caseload.”
The office still has four ongoing sexual violence investigations from 2011 -- at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Michigan State University, Wittenberg University and the University of Virginia -- as well as one from 2012 at Arizona State University. Nearly 20 cases from 2013 remain open, and dozens of new cases are opened every couple of months.
The total number of colleges actively being investigated by OCR for sexual violence complaints stands at 110.
From 2009 to 2014, the number of sexual violence complaints filed under Title IX increased from 9 to 102, the department said. As of early April, 51 complaints had been filed in 2015. And those are just Title IX complaints about sexual assault on college campuses. The office also handles complaints dealing with a variety of other civil rights issues including admissions, employment and athletics. Their jurisdiction includes elementary and secondary education and covers discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, age and disability.
In the letter released Tuesday, the department said that sexual violence investigations are taking much longer to complete than other kinds of civil rights investigations because the cases “tend to be complex and may involve systemic, campus- and institutionwide issues, in addition to issues pertaining to specific students.”
During remarks at the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago last month, Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, admitted that department was having trouble keeping up with the influx of complaints. “We’re having staff capacity issues,” Duncan said.
OCR received nearly 1,000 civil rights complaints in 2014, according to the office’s annual report, released last week. That’s triple the number of complaints it received in 1980, when its staff was more than double in size. From 1980 to 2014, the number of full-time OCR staff members fell from 1,148 to 544.
Carter said while the problem has been exacerbated in recent years due to the influx of cases and the reduction in staff, the length of Title IX investigations into campus sexual assault has been “a long-standing challenge.”
“Sexual violence investigations dating back for at least ten years have always taken an inordinate amount of time,” Carter said. “The office’s goal is 180 days, but in many cases, the investigations take a year or two to complete. With the current caseload of 100 cases, which is more than triple than what it was two years ago, it is simply impossible for the same amount of people with the same resources to process anything in a timely manner.”
A report released in February by the American Council on Education said that the length of many OCR investigations has the “effect of paralyzing institutional efforts to improve policies, since it may be unclear what policy changes will satisfy OCR and will be required before investigations are completed and resolutions reached.”
In February, President Obama asked Congress to fund a 31 percent increase in the budget of the Office for Civil Rights to deal with, in part, the influx in sexual assault investigations. The department said it would use the additional funding to hire an additional 192 investigators and 8 support staff to handle complaints and conduct proactive investigations.
The increase would bring OCR staff levels to about what they were in the 1990s, when it received about one-half the number of complaints.
“The Department of Education lacks the resources to promptly investigate the few complaints against schools that are filed,” Senator Gillibrand said in a statement. “This data is the latest example of why we need to flip the incentives so that schools properly address the problem of sexual assault on their campuses, and make sure the Department of Education has the funding it needs to enforce the laws, review complaints and help prevent campus sexual assault.”