Amherst College, UMass under scrutiny
Among 55 schools being reviewed for possible violations of law in handling sexual violence
AMHERST — Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst are among 55 institutions being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment.
The department released a list of all the institutions of higher education being investigated Thursday. Those on the list were either selected for “compliance reviews” or are included because complaints have been filed against them for their handling of reports of sexual violence, according to the DOE.
UMass is on the list because it was selected for a compliance review in 2011, according to Edward Blaguszewski, executive director of news and media relations at UMass Amherst.
“No one has filed a complaint against us with the government,” said Blaguszewski.
Amherst College made the list because of a complaint filed by two individuals in November 2013 regarding its handling of sexual violence reports, according to Caroline Hanna, associate director of public affairs at Amherst College.
The investigations come under the auspices of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — most commonly associated with equal access to sports.
The law prohibits denying students the ability to fully participate in educational and other activities due to their gender. According to a question and answer document released by the U.S. Department of Education regarding Title IX, a school violates a student’s rights when alleged sexual violence creates a hostile environment that limits the student’s ability to participate at the school and the school “fails to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”
While the Department of Education has in the past confirmed investigations at specific institutions, the list released Thursday is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review, according to the press release from the department.
“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in the release.
The department will not release case-specific details other than the dates the investigations began.
Hanna said that staff at the college “continue to confront one of the most serious challenges facing colleges and universities across the country — sexual misconduct.”
In a statement emailed to the Gazette, Hanna credited “a group of articulate and courageous students” with revealing numerous problems in the way the college had previously tried to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual misconduct in the fall of 2012.
In October 2012, former Amherst College student Angie Epifano published an essay in a student newspaper about being raped by a male classmate. She criticized the way staff responded to her report, from encouraging her to “forgive and forget” the crime to preventing her from studying abroad.
The essay went viral. Less than a month later, a suicide note by Trey Malone, an Amherst student who was sexually assaulted on campus in 2011 and who killed himself in June, was posted on the Good Men Project, a national website exploring men’s roles.
“Since then, we have made important changes and will continue to do so,” Hanna said. “These efforts include an adjudication process that involves specially-trained, non-campus experts; new educational programs aimed at cultural change on campus; and the addition of new staff, including four new members of our Counseling Center, a Title IX Coordinator and a sexual respect educator.”
Eight days after Epifano’s essay was published, Amherst College launched a Sexual Respect and Title IX webpage. It features resources and advice for victims as well as a “checklist” of corrective actions the school has taken, from training 25 percent of students in bystander intervention to teaching resident counselors about their roles as mandatory reporters.
Hanna said she does not know who filed the complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. However, published reports have said that Epifano and another alumna were responsible for the complaint.
Blaguszewski said that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been reviewing the university’s policies and responses to sexual violence since 2011.
“They chose us because of our size, location and other factors to be part of a compliance review,” he said. “They started it in 2011 and they haven’t closed it. They may find violations, or they may not.”
That said, Blaguszewski said the university takes the handling of sexual violence complaints very seriously. “We’ve tried to do a lot over the last couple years, and we still need to do more,” he said.
The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, established by President Barack Obama earlier this year, has released a number of recommendations to help fight sexual violence on campus. They include encouraging prevention efforts like bystander intervention and providing confidential, compassionate counseling to victims, Blaguszewski said.
“Many things the task force recommends are things we’ve been trying to do,” he said.
Enku Gelaye, UMass vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, said in a statement that the Umatter campaign launched this year includes extensive bystander intervention training for students and employees. Gelaye said the university also revised its Code of Student Conduct to strengthen its sexual misconduct policy and is launching a Men and Masculinity Center to engage men on this issue.
The Center for Women & Community at UMass Amherst will continue to provide confidential counseling and other support to survivors of sexual assault, the release said.
Last year, the center’s sexual assault hotline responded to more than 500 calls from area college students and provided crisis intervention to 227 victims of violence at the Five Colleges. The center also recently received a $270,000 federal grant to strengthen its efforts, according to the statement.
Also this week, in response to requests for clarity from institutions, the Department of Education released updated guidelines describing institutions responsibilities to address sexual violence and other kinds of sexual discrimination to comply with Title IX.
It includes information about which school employees are required to report allegations of sexual violence, how to determine if a “hostile environment” has been created, and how to conduct simultaneous Title IX and criminal investigations into sexual violence.
According to statistics provided by UMass Police, 12 forcible sexual offenses were reported on campus in 2010, 13 in 2011 and 15 in 2012. No non-forcible sexual offenses were reported during the three year period.
At Amherst College, according to the most recent crime statistics available, 17 forcible sexual offenses were reported on campus in 2010, 16 were reported in 2011, and 17 in 2012. In the category of non-forcible sexual offenses, such as statutory rape, one incident was reported in 2011.
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