55 US schools face federal sex assault probes

FILE - This April 10, 2014 file photo shows Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking in New York. Fifty-five colleges and universities _ big and small, public and private _ are being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse complaints, the Education Department revealed Thursday. Duncan said there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that he believes in transparency; he said the more the country is talking about the problem of sexual assault, the better. Duncan said there is “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt in his mind for schools being investigated.  (AP Photo/Michael Sisak, File)

FILE - This April 10, 2014 file photo shows Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking in New York. Fifty-five colleges and universities _ big and small, public and private _ are being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse complaints, the Education Department revealed Thursday. Duncan said there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that he believes in transparency; he said the more the country is talking about the problem of sexual assault, the better. Duncan said there is “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt in his mind for schools being investigated. (AP Photo/Michael Sisak, File)

WASHINGTON — From huge state universities to small colleges and the Ivy League, 55 schools across America are facing federal investigation for the way they handle sexual abuse allegations by their students.

For the first time, the Education Department revealed its list of colleges under investigation on Thursday — though no details of the complaints — as the Obama administration sought to bring more openness to the issue of sexual violence on and around the nation’s campuses.

The schools range from public universities, including Ohio State, the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State, to private schools including Knox College in Illinois, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. Ivy League schools including Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth are also on the list.

The government emphasized the list was about investigations of complaints, not judgments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt.

Few details of individual cases are known, but some are. One, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, involves allegations of mishandling of a matter involving a football player. The investigation began after federal authorities received complaints related to the expulsion of Brendan Gibbons, a former placekicker.

A student group examined the school’s student sexual misconduct policy and last month determined the university failed to explain a yearslong delay between the alleged incident and Gibbons’ expulsion in December. Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the university has been “fully cooperating.”

Schools on the list, for the most part, were unwilling to talk about specific incidents but said they have been working with the federal department to be more responsive to student complaints.

“We are hopeful at the end of this there will be a resolution that will strengthen our internal processes and result in a safer community,” said Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson. “There’s always something we can learn and ways to get better.”

The college investigations are done under Title IX of a U.S. law, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees girls and women equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions’ handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.

The agency previously would confirm such Title IX investigations when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.

Duncan said there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that transparency is important.

“No one probably loves to have their name on that list,” Duncan said during a White House briefing. “But we’ll investigate; we’ll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we’ll be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.”

The department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn’t comply with the law, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.

About half of all states have schools under investigation. Massachusetts has six, including Harvard College.

Harvard students filed formal complaints in late March to the department saying the college did not respond promptly to reports of sexual violence, that students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment, and that in some cases assault victims were forced to live in the same residence buildings as their alleged assailants.

While being on the list might be difficult for schools, Duncan said, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.

“In terms of what’s morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that,” Duncan said.

The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. President Barack Obama has appointed a task force of Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.

The task force’s report, released just two days earlier, announced the creation of a website, notalone.gov, offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims’ advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campuses.

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