Colleges’ actions in sexual assault cases scrutinized

Department of Education touts stricter sanctions

By Maggie Mulvihill
New England Center For Investigative Reporting / February 27, 2011

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It was supposed to be a fun college version of Friday night at the movies. A group of students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston gathered in a classroom building, spending the autumn evening in 2009 drinking rum and Cokes and watching films.

But in the middle of the night, a 28-year-old sophomore said she woke to find a male student, whom she did not know apart from seeing him in class, fondling her, according to a police report. He was found responsible following a campus disciplinary procedure.

MassArt sanctioned him by placing him on probation until graduation, and ordering him to stay away from the victim and participate in an educational workshop and counseling, according to US Department of Education records obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. The victim complained to the department’s Office for Civil Rights about the inadequacy of the sanctions, but the agency determined the school did nothing wrong, the records show.

“I’m kind of blown away because what he did to me, in a criminal court, would be a felony,’’ said the victim, a MassArt transfer student, now a senior. “It’s just really weird that his rights come before mine.’’

The Department of Education’s MassArt decision last October comes even as federal education officials are touting a tougher approach to colleges and universities that fail to adequately punish perpetrators of campus sexual assaults.

Russlynn Ali, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, announced last year that agreements were reached with two Midwestern schools — Eastern Michigan University and Notre Dame College of Ohio — to improve their handling of sexual assault cases.

The Office for Civil Rights is also reviewing the handling of cases in Ohio and California and is expected to issue new regulatory guidance this year for schools dealing with sexual assault complaints.

But records from the Office for Civil Rights show that New England colleges and universities have rarely been reprimanded for their handling of sexual assault or harassment complaints.

Of the 20 complaints filed against New England institutions since 2005, only two schools were found to have violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits schools receiving federal funding from failing to address gender discrimination on campus, including discrimination arising from sexual assaults.

Failure to properly sanction a perpetrator could create a hostile and discriminatory environment for a victim, the Office for Civil Rights has ruled in past cases.

Suffolk University Law School, in 2008, and Vermont Law School, in 2006, were admonished for violating Title IX in sexual assault cases, including taking too long to investigate victim complaints, records show.

Both schools agreed to strengthen their procedures, records show. The remaining complaints were dismissed because of insufficient evidence or a student’s failure to cooperate. Two complaints against unnamed schools were pending at the end of 2010, according to the records.

In the MassArt case, the Office for Civil Rights ruled there was no Title IX violation because MassArt moved swiftly to investigate and “the sanctions that the college did impose were reasonably calculated to prevent further harassing conduct,’’ according to the records.

A spokesman for Ali did not return a phone call seeking comment. A MassArt spokeswoman declined to comment, citing student privacy laws.

Speaking on the condition her name not be used, the MassArt victim said she is fearful of her attacker, whom she regularly sees on campus. She has considered dropping out, she said.

“I have had a hard time being a student at this school in the last year,’’ she said.

Telephone and e-mail messages for the male student were not returned. When interviewed by campus police, he said the victim was looking at him as he kissed her and didn’t tell him to stop.

He said he began to feel weird because she didn’t seem “into it,’’ the police report states. Asked by police if he put his hands near or under her pants, the assailant “nodded in the affirmative and said ‘I may have,’ ’’ according to the report.

The student’s father then told his son he did not have to answer further questions, the report states.

The Office for Civil Rights’ effort to crack down on schools failing to adequately punish assailants follows a series of reports on campus sexual assaults led by the Center for Public Integrity and published last year.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting reported that New England colleges and universities rarely expel or suspend perpetrators. One case, in which University of Massachusetts Amherst allowed a confessed rapist to remain on campus, has led to the formation of a review commission, NECIR reported. Its report is due this month.

Congressional legislation introduced last year would require schools to disclose disciplinary information in sexual assault cases, said S. Daniel Carter, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group dedicated to improving college safety.

Only three of four private Boston-area schools contacted for this story would provide any information about discipline for perpetrators of campus sexual assaults. Boston University, which houses the investigative reporting center, Boston College, Suffolk University, and Harvard University collectively reported 49 forcible rapes on campus to state police in monthly felony crime reports over the period from Jan. 1, 2005, through July 31, 2010, state records show.

Boston University reported 12 forcible rapes to state police, the records show. BU spokesman Colin Riley would only provide general “sexual assault’’ disciplinary information from 2005 through 2009, a category that includes actions taken on cases students may not have reported to campus police.

Riley said that 15 such cases went to the university’s Judicial Affairs Office and five students received sanctions ranging from expulsion to probation.

Boston College reported 25 forcible rape complaints to the state police during the five-year period, records show.

“Boston College is a very safe campus, and we take the security of our students and the BC community with the utmost seriousness,’’ said BC spokesman Jack Dunn, who declined to provide disciplinary information.

The Heights, BC’s student newspaper, reported last fall that only one sexual assault report went to a disciplinary hearing in the 2009-2010 academic year, though the newspaper did not disclose the outcome.

Suffolk University reported three forcible rapes, with one going through the campus disciplinary process.

“As a matter of university policy, we do not discuss details of these matters,’’ Suffolk spokesman Greg Gatlin said.

Harvard University reported nine forcible rapes in the past five years, the records show, but university spokesman Kevin Galvin would not provide information on what action, if any, the university took in those cases.

Instead he provided data indicating that in roughly the same time period, extending back to the 2005-06 school year, eight cases went through Harvard’s Administrative Board disciplinary process in the category of “social behavior-sexual.’’

Of the eight cases, three resulted in a requirement to withdraw. One case fell under a category described as “scratch’’ and four others under “take no action.’’

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University. Boston University journalism students Jenna Ebersole and Allison McKinnon contributed to this report.