One year after investigation opened, no resolution in federal probe of KU sexual violence cases
Average age of 134 open cases nationwide is even older
It’s been one year since Kansas University was added to a widely publicized and often negatively viewed list: the list of colleges being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence cases.
When KU will get off that list — and when the public will learn whether the university did anything wrong — is anybody’s guess. KU and a host of other universities are caught up in a national backlog of cases as investigators with the Department of Education are failing to keep up with the rising caseload of sexual violence complaints coming from university campuses.
KU’s case stems from a complaint filed by a student who said she was raped by an acquaintance in Lewis Hall in 2013. Dissatisfied with KU’s response to the allegations, the student filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and also took her story national by talking to the Huffington Post.
Even at a year old, KU’s unresolved investigation is still younger than most on the list.
USDE’s Office for Civil Rightsguidelines call for the office’s investigators to resolve cases in 180 days, or about six months. The average investigation on the list has been open 13 months. A couple have been open more than four years.
Meanwhile cases continue to pile up.
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To her, it’s black and white.
What happened in a fellow Kansas University student’s dorm room — two times during the fall of her freshman year, both after nights of heavy drinking — was rape.
To her alleged assailant and those investigating her case, it’s not so cut and dried.
When the USDE first made the list public, in May 2014, there were 55 open investigations nationwide. The number has since ballooned to 134.
Eleven cases have been resolved since May 2014, according to a USDE spokesman.
What’s taking so long, at KU and at the other schools?
The USDE won’t comment on individual cases but says in general the probes are complicated and the department needs more money for more staff to keep up.
“Sexual violence investigations tend to be highly complex — involving not just an individual’s complaint, but sometimes reaching back years to study a university’s culture and response to other claims of sexual assaults,” USDE assistant press secretary Denise Horn said.
The USDE has requested funding to hire 200 more Office for Civil Rights staffers nationwide to handle its increased caseload, which also includes numerous other categories of complaints besides sexual violence, Horn said.
The Office for Civil Rights needs $30.7 million more than its fiscal year 2015 budget of $100 million, according to the department’s fiscal year 2016 budget request.
Most of that, $24.7 million, would be for the desired new hires, which would bring the agency up to 754 full-time employees nationwide, according to the document.
Some familiar with the investigation process, however, say current practices are bad.
The fact that so many cases are taking significantly longer than the 180-day guideline is the sign of a serious problem, a source who has worked in the Department of Education office told the Journal-World.
“It is not fair to victims or schools,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because she’s not authorized to speak for the office.
The source said one problem is a new directive that requires investigators in the Office for Civil Rights to examine multiple years of a school’s sexual violence cases. That multiyear review is required even when a school is the subject of only a single complaint. As a result, the source said investigations are too numerous and are taking too long.
The reputation of some schools may be taking a beating in the process.
“The presumption of the public is that if OCR’s doing an investigation, the school is doing something wrong, and that’s not necessarily the case,” the source said.
Leaders in the Department of Education have said they’ve have good reasons for making the changes to the investigation process. A recent Associated Press story said that when Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, was appointed in 2013 she decided that instead of focusing on the specific incident that spurred a particular complaint, investigators should solicit as much information as possible from a school to identify any patterns.
“We are more systemic in the way we evaluate because I think that’s the way to get at civil rights compliance more effectively,” Lhamon said in the article.
Colleges’ investigations of sexual assaults reported on their campuses are separate from criminal investigations, which only ensue when victims report an assault to law enforcement.
Colleges must comply with Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education. In order to maintain a safe environment for students to pursue their education, schools must investigate reports of sexual violence, work to prevent it and help victims.
In most cases, the public has no knowledge of what triggered the USDE investigations, as neither the USDE nor schools comment on individual cases, citing confidentiality.
In KU’s case, however, the student who filed a complaint with the USDE went public last summer, alleging that KU mishandled its investigation and resolution of her claim that a fellow freshman raped her in his dorm room after a night of partying together in October 2013. She said the same man also raped her a month earlier, also while she was intoxicated.
KU’s investigation concluded the man had “nonconsensual sex” with the woman in the October case. He was sanctioned to disciplinary probation, banned from student housing and required to participate in alcohol and sexual violence training.
The Journal-World reported on the woman’s case last year, and documents obtained by the newspaper support statements that she filed the complaint triggering the USDE investigation of KU, which was opened July 16, 2014.
The woman and her mother declined to comment for this story.
KU would not confirm or comment on the case then, or now.
University spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said KU was cooperating with the Office for Civil Rights.
“We respect student privacy and won’t discuss what prompted the OCR investigation,” she said. “We know that OCR investigations are not resolved overnight.”
Barcomb-Peterson said KU created its Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access in 2012 specifically to address Title IX violations and improve prevention. She said the Sexual Assault Task Force that Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little created in fall 2014 was another important step toward supporting students.
“With 134 universities under OCR investigation … this national dialogue has allowed the KU community to take a critical look at what the university can be doing better,” Barcomb-Peterson said.
By the numbers: Federal sexual violence investigations
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has ongoing investigations of sexual violence complaints at post-secondary institutions nationwide. The list of open cases is growing much faster than investigations are being resolved.
55 — Number of investigations open when the list was first publicized, in May 2014.
134 — Number of open sexual violence investigations now.
4 — Number of open investigations at Kansas colleges. Cases at KU and Washburn University were opened a year ago. Kansas State University has two open cases; one is 11 months old and one is three months old.
13 months — Average age of the 134 unresolved investigations.
49 months — Age of the two oldest investigations on the list. One is at University of Virginia, the other at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, both initiated more than four years ago.
66 — Number of open investigations that were initiated in 2014, the most of any year. Of investigations remaining unresolved, four were opened in 2011, one in 2012, 23 in 2013 and 40 so far in 2015.
Source: U.S. Department of Education July 1 list of its sexual violence investigations open at the postsecondary level.