Government

Federal Sex-Assault Investigations Are Being Resolved More Often. These 11 Cases Show How.

August 03, 2017

Since President Trump took office, one of the most closely watched issues in higher education has been his Education Department’s shifting approach to enforcement of campus sexual-assault policy.

Candice E. Jackson, acting assistant secretary for the department’s Office for Civil Rights, directed her staff to sharply scale back the scope of sexual-violence investigations under the gender-equity law known as Title IX. Her instructions sought to cut down on a backlog of cases that the department said had "exploded" under President Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump’s presidency is still young, but signs have emerged already that the department is delivering on that pledge. Sexual-violence investigations are still being opened at a rapid pace — this week, the department acknowledged six new ones, for a total of 350 active cases. But resolutions have grown more frequent, too, with two more announced this week.

So far, 11 sexual-violence cases have been resolved in the Trump era. Here’s what we know about them:

The resolutions are coming at a faster clip.

The civil-rights office is on pace to resolve more sexual-violence cases this year than it did in any other since the department issued its controversial 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter. Last month was especially busy — five cases were resolved in July alone. That’s the most resolutions of any month in the enforcement era marked by the 2011 guidance. If the civil-rights office continues to resolve investigations at its current rate, it will quickly surpass the resolution totals seen in recent years (the 2017 figure below is a partial year):

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an email that the new pace of resolutions reflected that the civil-rights office was "at long last making progress on resolving cases that have been stalled and backlogged for years." The changes in the office’s approach, she added, were "ensuring that each complaint is fully and fairly investigated on its merits in a timely manner."

They’re also being delivered more quietly.

After President Obama’s civil-rights office first released its list of Title IX sexual-violence investigations, in May 2014, it became common for the department to announce its resolution agreements in news releases. Those public disclosures have been much less frequent since President Trump took office. Of the 11 investigations resolved in the Trump era, just two of those resolutions — involving Wittenberg University — were announced on the department’s website (in March). As BuzzFeed reported at the time, the department did not give the same treatment to a case involving the University of Alaska system, resolved in February, nor has it done so with a more recent case at the Butte-Glenn Community College District, resolved last month.

Ms. Hill said in her email that the department was "actively considering the best approaches to what kind of information is appropriate to publish on our website or otherwise make publicly available."

The new trend is "administrative closure."

The civil-rights office will administratively close an investigation — which means it issues a closure letter but no findings or resolution agreement — in certain situations, such as when investigations overlap with the actions of other agencies. For instance, OCR will close a complaint if the same party has filed similar allegations with another civil-rights agency or a state or federal court. It will also close a complaint if it receives "credible information" that the allegations have been resolved and that there are no broader, systemic allegations in question. The office may also close a complaint administratively if a complainant withdraws his or her allegations or refuses to cooperate.

Since the department issued the 2011 letter, 18 cases have been resolved by administrative closure. Already, seven of those — or about 39 percent of them — have come during Mr. Trump’s time in office.

The rise in administrative closures carries a consequence: There’s less publicly available information about how the civil-rights office conducted those investigations or what it found. By contrast, resolution agreements explain the scope of investigations and their findings in great detail.

Ms. Hill said the uptick in administrative closures was a result of the civil-rights office’s streamlined policies, which she said had returned authority to the division’s regional offices.

"Career investigators in the regional offices are now empowered to investigate and resolve cases that had been awaiting D.C. Headquarters review or approval for months or even years," she said in her email. The Office for Civil Rights "is closing cases according to the conclusions necessitated by the evidence and legal analysis of each individual case using objective standards applied neutrally and thoroughly to each individual complaint."

The resolutions involved many different kinds of complainants, and all types of colleges.

The civil-rights office does not discuss details of its cases while they are being investigated, so it can be difficult to learn about an investigation until after it is resolved. Even so, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — which The Chronicle is regularly requesting and posting to its Title IX tracker — provide some information. The resolutions involve public and private colleges, long-running investigations and more recent ones, and complainants of all kinds, including some men.

 

For example, three cases — two at Wittenberg, and one at Butte-Glenn — involved female students who accused male athletes of assault.

Three others involved outsiders — accusers or their advocates. An investigation at Liberty University was prompted by a complaint from a woman who was not a student. An investigation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was prompted by a complaint from a female student’s parent, and one at Grinnell College was sparked by a complaint from a victim advocate.

At least two cases resolved since Mr. Trump took office are known to have involved male students. At Princeton University, one said the administration mishandled his complaint of assault, and at Harvey Mudd College, another said he was denied fair treatment in the resolution of an accusation against him.

Here’s an additional breakdown of the Trump-era resolutions:

Seven cases ended in administrative closure.

For many of the investigations below, The Chronicle has obtained letters announcing the department’s decision to close the case. Click the links to explore those documents.

Stanford University (7/23/2015 to 3/24/2017, 610 days)

Liberty University (11/28/2016 to 6/15/2017, 199 days)

Harvey Mudd College (12/28/2016 to 6/29/2017, 183 days)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (8/24/2016 to 7/21/2017, 331 days)

University of Massachusetts at Amherst (9/24/2015 to 7/24/2017, 669 days)

Princeton University (9/30/2015 to 7/26/2017, 665 days)

Grinnell College (7/22/2015 to 7/28/2017, 737 days)

Four ended in resolution agreements.

Each case below includes a letter outlining the scope of the department’s investigation and its findings, as well as a resolution agreement describing what the college agreed to do in order to remedy its failures. The agreements are generally similar to those issued during the Obama administration and direct the colleges to improve faults with such matters as their grievance procedures, notices of nondiscrimination, and the designations of their Title IX coordinators.

Butte-Glenn Community College District (2/27/2013 to 7/17/2017, 1,601 days)

University of Alaska system (5/5/2014 to 2/17/2017, 1,019 days)

Wittenberg University (8/25/2011 to 3/24/2017, 2,038 days)

Wittenberg University (4/18/2013 to 3/24/2017, 1,436 days)

Read this Chronicle article for more details on previous Title IX resolutions, and visit the Title IX tracker to keep up with the latest developments.

Nick DeSantis is an editor who supervises coverage of daily news across all areas of academe. Email him at nicholas.desantis@chronicle.com.