USA TODAY - Education Department officials laid out expectations Thursday for how state university systems should handle allegations of sexual violence on their campuses, a topic that has been percolating in the last few years as more federal complaints are being filed against universities.
The guidance, the latest federal response to the issue in recent years, comes via a voluntary resolution through which the 29-campus State University of New York system has agreed to correct a number of problems involving sexual violence that were identified during a three-year review.
The resolution sets new policy for the SUNY system, which has 219,000 students. It also has the potential to influence other institutions as they gear up for a federal law, set to take effect in March, that requires colleges to do more to prevent sexual violence on campus and to protect victims' rights.
"We hope that all university systems are evaluating their policies and procedures" to ensure that they have taken effective steps to prevent sexual violence on campus said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
The investigation was not based on a particular allegation but was instead initiated by the Education Department as part of its ongoing compliance review process. SUNY spokesman David Doyle said SUNY was chosen because of its size and diversity, and that its collaboration with federal officials "affirms and recognizes that SUNY campuses across New York are now national models" for the handling of sex discrimination allegations.
Investigators reviewed 159 individual cases of alleged sexual harassment, and interviewed students and staff at SUNY's Albany, New Paltz and Morrisville campuses and Buffalo State College.
Under the agreement, SUNY will take steps to ensure that campuses conduct investigations promptly rather than wait for criminal investigations to be resolved, provide relief for the alleged victim if needed, and designate a coordinator to handle Title IX complaints, which have to do with sexual discrimination.
Stetson University College of Law professor Peter Lake, who specializes in higher education, says the Education Department "is clearly signaling that we have to have a coordinated response that is prompt and equitable. The whole system is going to come under scrutiny."
Previous federal guidance has focused on campuses. In May, the Education and Justice departments reached a settlement with the University of Montana in Missoula, that identified expectations similar to those announced Thursday. In 2011, the Education Department issued a set of guidelines for colleges on how to handle sexual assault allegations.
Concerns that campus administrators try to hide or downplay complaints of sexual assault and harassment have become increasingly visible in recent years.
Last week, several students and recent graduates of the University of Connecticut stepped forward to say they had filed a complaint with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. Emerson College students in Boston told similar stories earlier this month. Among other colleges where allegations have surfaced: the University of California-Berkeley, University of Southern California, Dartmouth, Occidental and Swarthmore.
Some members of a national network of survivors of sexual assault called IX Network said the voluntary agreement with SUNY lacks teeth.
"We would like to see (the Education Department) actually come down on schools and say, 'Here are the cases where you messed up and ultimately somebody has to take responsibility,' " says Annie Clark, a lead complainant in a federal case against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "We're making allegations that people have breached the law seriously. We want people held accountable."