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Students at the University of Maryland at College Park may soon pay an extra student fee to help cover the costs of the university's struggling office that investigates sexual assault.

The $34 fee, approved by the university’s student government last month and reported by BuzzFeed News Tuesday, was widely criticized, with advocates saying it is highly unusual for students to fund services to combat sexual assault and ensure that their university remains compliant with federal law. Student leaders said this week that they felt they were left with no choice after the university failed to properly fund the office.

“By putting in a proposal to add an additional fee, that’s placing another financial burden on students,” A. J. Pruitt, the Student Government Association’s vice president of student affairs, told BuzzFeed. “It’s not something I’m excited about, but it gets us to fully funding the office in a short amount of time.”

Such a fee is indeed unusual. Erin Buzuvis, an expert on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at Western New England University, said she has never heard of an institution using a student fee to cover the costs of a Title IX office. Neither has the National Center for Campus Public Safety or the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

Some institutions have security fees to support campus police and security departments, as well as student health fees, which may be used to fund prevention and awareness campaigns related to sexual assault. But a college’s Title IX office is an administrative department whose existence is mandated by the U.S. Department of Education, and few -- if any -- rely on student fees.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights instructs colleges and universities to hire “a well-trained Title IX coordinator and to give that coordinator the authority and support necessary to do the job.” Maryland hired its first Title IX coordinator in 2014, joining many other colleges that have recently expanded or established such offices in response to regulatory pressure from the Education Department.

"The University of Maryland has funded the Title IX office since its inception," said Crystal Brown, a university spokeswoman. "Annual budgets for this office have increased every year. Students have proposed a new fee to provide this office additional revenue, but it has not yet been voted on and [is] not yet final. We are supportive of the Student Government Association’s proposal, which, if approved, will supplement the existing budget and is a show of support for the important mission of the Title IX office."

The office currently has a budget of about $1 million per year. In a meeting with the university’s student government last month, Catherine Carroll, the university’s Title IX director, said her office was underfunded and overworked. She said little planning went into creating the office, meaning its staff has been forced “to build the ship while flying it.” The office doesn’t currently have a permanent home on campus.

In addition to investigating and resolving claims of sexual assault, the Title IX office also handles reports of all kinds of discrimination, including incidents of racial bias. In addition, the office works with student organizations to create awareness and prevention campaigns, provides programming during new student orientation, helps compile several reports each year on campus safety, and conducts training for faculty and staff. Carroll said the current amount of training, much of which is online, is inadequate and only in place so that the university remains in compliance with federal law.

The office has four investigators: three for sexual assault cases and one for reports of discrimination. Last year, Carroll said, her office received 148 sexual assault complaints, which led to 112 investigations. Such cases are, according to the Education Department, expected to take 60 business days to resolve. Carroll said with the office’s current level of staffing, the investigations at Maryland take, on average, 140 business days.

“That is not prompt,” Carroll said, describing the length of time as unacceptable. “And when people are experiencing crisis and trauma, the last thing you need is to drag it out.”

The caseload has grown so overwhelming, she said, that she has been hesitant to promote the office as a resource for students experiencing other kinds of discrimination, as she is afraid her staff cannot handle the additional work. The student fee, if approved by the university’s president and Board of Regents, would generate an additional $900,000 per year for the office, which would allow Carroll to hire a deputy and two additional investigators, as well as a manager of sexual assault prevention programming.

“This is just phenomenal to me,” Carroll said, discussing the fee at last month's meeting. “To me it’s historic that students are taking leadership on this issue and recognizing, ‘Wow, there is something we can actually do.’”

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