Princeton University is listed among 55 institutions of higher education being investigated for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. The list was released last week by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
The investigations support efforts by the Obama administration to combat sexual assault on college campuses. On Wednesday, May 1, the administration released the first report of its White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
The task force, which was set up in January, includes Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The 20-page report, titled “Not Alone,” cites a statistic from the National Institute of Justice that one in five women experience rape or attempted rape in college.
Stressing the need for more data on the subject, the report recommends that schools conduct systematic campus surveys to assess the prevalence of sexual assault as well as student attitudes toward it, or “campus climate.” The task force will be reporting again in 2016 and “will explore legislative or administrative options to require the schools to conduct a survey.”
The report emphasizes the importance of confidential advocates and calls for further training for those who deal with sexual violence on college campuses. It states: “Insensitive or judgmental comments, or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s, can compound a victim’s distress.” The report can be viewed at www.NotAlone.gov, a new government website, also unveiled last week, calling attention to the problem of sexual violence at institutions of higher learning.
Vice President Joe Biden said officials at colleges and universities, even if they fear their schools’ reputations may be damaged, “can no longer turn a blind eye and pretend rape and sexual assault don’t occur on their campuses.”
“Colleges and universities need to face the fact of what exists on their campuses,” said Mr. Biden. “They need to step up to it.”
According to the report, the NotAlone.gov website would be an information source that would “give students a clear explanation of their rights,” as well as “a simple description of how to file a complaint” with federal authorities.
Besides Princeton, the list of schools being investigated includes Boston University, Harvard College and Harvard University Law School in Massachusetts; Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; CUNY Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College and SUNY at Binghamton in New York; as well as Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore College and Temple University in Pennsylvania.
The list, dated May 1, 2014, will be updated regularly and can be viewed online: www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-releases-list-higher-education-institutions-open-title-i.
Princeton is the only New Jersey institution included on the OCR list. The Department of Education will not disclose any case-specific facts or details about the schools under investigation.
In Princeton’s case, the investigation began in 2010, said University spokesperson Martin Mbugua in response to a request for comment Monday.
By email, Mr. Mbugua quoted Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon at the time the list was announced, who said that “a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”
“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,” said Ms. Lhamon. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue.”
Mr. Mbugua said that the University is aware of the investigation and will continue to cooperate with the Office for Civil Rights.
In 2011, the Obama administration said that under Title IX schools had to address sexual violence in order to provide equal access to education. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
The primary goal of a Title IX investigation is to ensure that a campus is in compliance with federal law. All colleges, universities, and K-12 schools receiving federal funds must comply with Title IX. Schools that violate the law and refuse to address the problems can lose federal funding or be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action.
Under federal law, sexual violence refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse, and sexual coercion.
The OCR’s list is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review by the DOE for possible violations of the law’s requirements regarding sexual violence.
In recent years, questions have been raised about Princeton University’s response to sexual assaults on campus.
Last May, Princeton University’s Department of Public Safety and the newly consolidated Princeton Police Department put an updated agreement in place that clarifies who does what. The agreement defines operating procedures and includes details of police response strategies and protocols. As such, it was not released to the public. Then Princeton Police Captain Nick Sutter, now Chief Sutter, said: “It contains privileged information that if released could endanger the public and officers.”
Prior to consolidation, the University’s statistics were included in the former Borough and Township crime reports. Post consolidation and subsequent to the above-mentioned agreement, the University’s Department of Public Safety submits its own Uniform Crime Report statistics to the State Police responsible for collecting such data.