Department of Education opens Title IX investigations at HU, WM

Federal officials are looking into the handling of sexual violence on campus at Hampton University and the College of William and Mary, the Department of Education said this month.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating issues related to Title IX campus sexual violence, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This is Hampton University’s first investigation, and the College of William and Mary’s second.

Title IX protects against discrimination on the basis of sex in all educational programs that receive federal funding.

"If you receive federal funds you have to treat violence against women, including assault and all forms of sex-based discrimination ... as if it's the exact same harm as race offenses, national origin offenses, and one of the reasons schools get in trouble is they separate out violence against women," said Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor of sexual violence at New England Law in Boston.

The OCR says opening an investigation doesn’t mean the college or university has broken the law. It’s not clear why the OCR launched the investigations. The Department of Education has not responded to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Daily Press. The OCR doesn’t discuss details of its current investigations and wouldn’t comment on the investigations, Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said.

The OCR began its investigation at HU in August. It began investigations at William and Mary in April 2014 and August 2017, both of which remain open.

It’s not clear, either, when the sexual violence took place.

“If you assume the events in question happened close to time they decided to open an investigation, you’d be wrong,” Murphy said.

Hampton University did not respond to two phone calls Tuesday and two more on Wednesday or to an email seeking comment.

William and Mary spokesman Brian Whitson said the OCR launched its most recent investigation at William and Mary in response to a complaint a student made in June 2016.

“It is our understanding this is focused on a specific case rather than a broad systematic review, such as the one that took place in 2014,” he said in an email.

The school’s been in contact with the OCR and has been sending information as the OCR requests it.

"The main question is whether it’s something that's new to us entirely or something we have already investigated internally," Title IX coordinator Kiersten Boyce said in an interview this month.

The OCR garnered national attention in 2014 when it announced it had opened investigations at 55 colleges and universities for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints,” the Department of Education said in a news release then.

Three years later, 360 sexual violence cases remain open at 258 postsecondary institutions. In Virginia, in addition to HU and W&M, investigations are still open at George Mason University, James Madison University, the University of Mary Washington and the University of Virginia, according to the Department of Education. The University of Richmond has two open cases and Virginia Commonwealth University three.

“The fact that the problem is so prolific that it’s clogging up oversight agencies is not a reason to not do things quickly; it’s a reason to hire more quickly,” Murphy said.

As William and Mary awaits further information about the status of the investigations, the school has continued to make changes on campus to “reaffirm our commitment to improving sexual assault prevention, response and education at William & Mary,” Whitson said.

In 2015, William and Mary President Taylor Reveley formed a task force that conducted a review of sexual violence on campus, Whitson said. Students are required to take an online course on sexual misconduct prevention, attend a session on sexual misconduct, substance use and prevention tactics called Making a Tribe Choice and take a course on substance use, Boyce said.

With a new federal administration in place, it’s also not clear how the Department of Education will handle its investigations. On Friday, the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued interim Title IX guidance to replace the Obama-era rules.

The interim guidance says schools must respond to complaints of sexual violence but apply rules in a way that doesn’t interfere with the legal rights of students and faculty — including free speech. The rules emphasize the role of a campus Title IX coordinator, who’s obligated to “communicate with each student throughout the investigation to ensure that any interim measures are necessary and effective based on the students’ evolving needs.” That could involve offering campus escort services or leaves of absence to both parties. The new guidance also places the burden of gathering evidence on the school’s shoulders, and says a trained investigator should review the evidence.

The guidance says any disciplinary action should be made “while considering the impact of separating a student from her or his education” and should be proportionate to the violation itself.

Earlier this month, DeVos spoke at George Mason University, where she referred to Title IX as a “failed system.”

“Schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment. Too many cases involve students and faculty who have faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds or teaching their classes,” she said. “Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation.”

Mishkin can be reached by phone at 757-641-6669. Follow her on Twitter at @KateMishkin.

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