Last week, seven women filed a federal civil rights complaint claiming that University of Connecticut officials were indifferent to or dismissive of allegations that the women had been sexually assaulted on campus. The university’s president fired back, calling the criticism “astonishingly misguided” and “demonstrably untrue.”
But such claims are increasingly common. Across the country, a growing number of women have filed formal complaints alleging that certain high schools and colleges are providing inadequate response to reports of sexual assault and harassment. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), some 29 complaints specifically related to sexual misconduct at the postsecondary level were filed between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013.
High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg in Los Angeles, is representing the four current UConn students and three graduates. One of the current students, for example, when she reported an attack by a student-athlete, the investigating officer told her he did not believe her. Allred said the school is required to investigate, potentially hold hearings, listen to witnesses and notify both sides of their findings. She would not say if she plans to file lawsuits on the women’s behalf, but said she is working with a Connecticut lawyer on their cases.
Allred is also responsible for filing at least six of this year’s other complaints on behalf of victims of sexual assault and harassment. Among the colleges and universities cited are Swarthmore College, Dartmouth College, University of Southern California, University of California-Berkeley, Occidental College in California, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In the past two years, other lawyers filed complaints against nearby Yale University, Wesleyan University and Amherst College. In some instances, individual victims have filed separate lawsuits against the universities as well. Many of the schools have also launched their own investigations.
Occidental College, just last month, entered into a civil settlement agreement with 10 students to avoid a lawsuit. Terms of the settlement were confidential. A total of 37 students are named in the complaint filed against the school with the Office of Civil Rights.
To date, only one investigation has resulted in a report issued by the U.S. Department of Education. In March 2011, the department had received a complaint that a sexually hostile environment existed at Yale University and school officials hadn’t responded in a prompt or adequate manner. The Yale complaint was filed, in part, as a result of a well-publicized incident in October 2010 when fraternity pledges chanted sexually aggressive comments outside the university’s Women’s Center.
An agreement was struck between the government and Yale last year that requires a number of policy and procedural changes, including the creation of a Title IX coordinator and a committee to ensure students are aware of the grievance procedures and resources available to them. Additional training for staff members on dealing with victims was also part of the settlement.
Neena Chaudhry, a senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center, said resolution in the Yale case is typical of how the complaints filed with the Office of Civil Rights tend to get resolved.
“Schools need to do a better job of training [staffers to] recognize what assault is,” and letting students know where they can go to report any sort of harassment or violence, said Chaudhry. “An agreement varies from anything from changing policies and procedures to having a Title IX coordinator.”
Chaudhry said schools often end up having to hire a Title IX coordinator to ensure compliance with the 1972 Education Amendments aimed at preventing sex discrimination. The University of North Carolina has hired three full-time Title IX compliance administrators since the complaint was filed against the university.
In some instances, Chaudhry said, a school could be required to make monetary payments to cover victims’ expenses, such as the costs of counseling. However, these payouts are far less than a victim could potentially recover in a lawsuit.
The Office of Civil Rights “will come in, talk to the school, if [the investigators] are finding problems, the school will want to get into compliance because federal funds can be terminated under the law,” Chaudhry explained. “Schools usually step up and say ‘What do we need to do to be in compliance with the law?’ and it’s monitored for several years to make sure it’s being met.”
According to Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education, the UConn complaint was forwarded to the Office of Civil Rights’ Boston office “which is now evaluating the complaint to determine whether the allegations are appropriate for OCR investigation.”
Bradshaw explained that the OCR must determine whether the complaint alleges a violation of one or more of the laws that the office enforces and officials must also determine whether the complaint was filed on time. Generally, a complaint must be filed within 180 calendar days of the last act that the complainant believes was discriminatory.
If there is an investigation and OCR determines that the university failed to comply with one of the civil rights laws that the office enforces, officials will attempt to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement.
Jonathan B. Orleans, of Pullman & Comley in Bridgeport, has experience in dealing with Title IX complaints. Orleans helped get women’s volleyball reinstated at Quinnipiac following a federal Title IX lawsuit. Orleans said a sex assualt victim needs to sit down and decide at the outset whether to pursue a complaint with OCR or file her own separate lawsuit.
“Generally, the OCR will not start an investigation if there is already a lawsuit pending,” said Orleans. A victim could potentially file a lawsuit after an OCR investigation, he said, adding that it’s possible the federal investigation would generate evidence that could be used in a later lawsuit.
“In a sense, one might see going to the OCR as a less aggressive, less drastic step than filing a lawsuit,” said Orleans. “And I think going to OCR is not seeking damages for the individual plaintiffs. It’s seeking institutional reform. OCR doesn’t have the authority to award damages.”
New Haven attorney John R. Williams said he has taken numerous cases to federal court on behalf of high school students who allege their schools similarly did not do enough with regard to their claims of sexual assault or harassment. He said he also has a case against Yale that derives from the earlier problems at the school. He is representing a security official who blew the whistle on the university and was then allegedly retaliated against for doing so.
Williams would have advised the UConn victims to go to court. “If I was counseling those students, yes by all means do [the OCR complaint], but don’t leave it at that,” said Williams. “They’ll be senior members of the alumni association before they get it resolved.”•