U.S. Faults Virginia's Handling of Sexual Assault

Federal agency says the University of Virginia -- a focal point in the debate over campus sexual assault -- responded inadequately to reports of sexual misconduct, including some involving fraternities, and faulted a dean's public comments.

September 22, 2015

The University of Virginia in recent years failed to promptly respond to and investigate reports of sexual violence, including those involving fraternities, the U.S. Department of Education said Monday.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights said its investigation determined that the university did not “promptly and equitably” respond to complaints of sexual violence. As a result, UVa was in violation of the federal antidiscrimination law known as Title IX, the OCR report found.

UVa and the Education Department also reached an agreement Monday to resolve the investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault complaints. The Title IX inquiry was first opened in June 2011.

In one instance, the OCR report says, the university did not schedule a hearing for nearly five months after the university completed its investigation into a female student's allegation of sexual assault and determined there should be a hearing. Although some of that delay was outside the university’s control, the report said, the university was also responsible for “much of the delay through its own actions.”

Another female student in a separate case ended up dropping her complaint of sexual assault against a male student because the university allowed the male student to bring a cross complaint of sexual assault against her just a day before a preconference hearing to discuss her original complaint was set to take place, the report says. The university acted unfairly, investigators concluded, because it thoroughly investigated the female student’s complaint before allowing it to proceed to the hearing stage while allowing the male student’s 11th-hour cross complaint to be heard at the same hearing without subjecting it to similar scrutiny.

And in many other cases, the report says, the university did not promptly look into information regarding reports of sexual assault when the student making the report declined to formally pursue the matter. Even if a complainant doesn’t want a formal investigation, the Education Department has said, colleges and universities are required under Title IX to look into the report of sexual assault to determine whether it needs to take action to protect the broader community.

OCR investigators said that the university “failed to take appropriate action” during the 2008-9 school year in its handling of 21 complaints of alleged sexual assault, some of which included rape and gang rape. In addition, the university similarly did not promptly investigate two reports of sexual assault in 2013 and 2014 that involved fraternities.

The University of Virginia has been a focal point of the national debate over campus sexual assault in part because of a now-retracted Rolling Stone article that told the story of an alleged brutal gang rape at a fraternity there.

Statements by UVa Dean

The OCR report released Monday pointed to the statements made by a UVa official who figured prominently in the Rolling Stone article last November as providing “a basis for a hostile environment for affected students.” (That official, Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, is now suing the magazine and the reporter who wrote the story for defamation.)

Although the OCR report does not identify her by name, it identified statements made by Eramo in a September 2014 interview broadcast on the university’s radio station. In that interview, she said that the university’s Sexual Misconduct Board, which she chairs, is not comfortable expelling a student when the board is only 51 percent certain that the person is guilty of sexual misconduct.

Asked why a student who admits to sexual misconduct during an informal proceeding is not expelled, Eramo said that one is never 100 percent sure what occurred even in spite of that admission. She also said the accused student’s admission of responsibility should be taken into account in any penalty.

The OCR report said that Eramo’s statements “indicated that the university does not consider expulsion as a possible sanction where a finding of sexual misconduct is based on a preponderance of evidence standard or even where there is no question as to the accused student’s culpability because he or she has admitted to the conduct.”

The report continues: “That the university publicized these views in a campus radio interview communicates the official position of the university that limited sanctions would be imposed for sexual misconduct brought to the university’s attention.”

Students interviewed by OCR said that the university’s failure to impose “serious disciplinary sanctions” led them to believe that the university did not take complaints of sexual misconduct seriously.

The department said the university has since updated its policies, which federal officials now consider adequate. UVa agreed to make a series of changes to its sexual assault policies and procedures in order to resolve the Education Department’s investigation.

For example, the university will review all complaints heard by its sexual misconduct board between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years to determine whether they were handled appropriately. The university will also submit to OCR for “review and approval” copies of all reports alleging sexual harassment and sexual violence for the previous and current academic years.

“By signing the resolution agreement, we have reaffirmed our commitment to continue taking steps we believe to be an important part of effective responses to sexual harassment and assault -- urgent and complex societal issues of national importance that are challenging institutions of higher education and beyond,” UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said in a statement provided by the department. “We have already implemented many of the measures identified in the agreement.”

The agreement comes as the Obama administration has, in recent years, more aggressively investigated colleges and universities over their handling of sexual assault. As of last week, the Office for Civil Rights had opened 163 Title IX sexual violence investigations at 139 colleges and universities.


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