ASU Among Schools Under Investigation for Handling of Sexual-Violence Complaints

Arizona State University is one of 55 higher-education institutions nationwide that's being investigated for possible improper handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights today released the list of all the schools under investigation, something it's never done before. The investigations are being done under what's commonly referred to as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex for educational settings that receive federal funds.

The department's civil rights office didn't release details on the 55 cases and said it "will not disclose any case-specific facts or details about the institutions under investigation."

However, as an example, one of the cases involved has been publicized. Amherst College in Massachusetts is one of the 55 schools on the list, and a former student there, Angie Epifano, has publicly stated that she filed a Title IX complaint.

Epifano wrote to her student newspaper in 2012 about being sexually assaulted on campus, and the college's response, which was read by people across the country. Among other things, Epifano claimed administrators, including the school's sexual-assault counselor, discouraged her from reporting the rape.

The Department of Education gives universities guidance on how to respond to sexual-assault cases (view the latest edition here), which outlines several responsibilities universities have in sexual-assault cases, like eliminating any "hostile environment" that may exist for the victim.

Though there's no public information about the complaint made against ASU, it has been subject to a Title IX case before, which led to a settlement with a student who was raped by a football player in her dorm room in 2004.

What's interesting about ASU's being among the 55 schools is that this settlement included "the appointment of a highly placed safety officer who will review and reform policies for reporting and investigating incidents of sexual harassment and assault," according to an ESPN account from the time. That part of the settlement applied to all three state universities.

In that case, the player, Darnel Henderson, had been accused of grabbing women and exposing himself to women at his dorm at ASU. According to the ESPN story, "But [Dirk] Koetter, [then] the head football coach, persuaded school officials to allow Henderson to return to the campus under a zero tolerance policy."

After being allowed back into the dorms, the victim accused Henderson of raping her, although Henderson wasn't prosecuted.

Again, there's no public information as to what's going on in this latest complaint, or whether it has merit. But ASU is the only Arizona school on the list.

Here's what else the Department of Education had to say while releasing this list:

Releasing this list advances a key goal of President Obama's White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to bring more transparency to the federal government's enforcement activities around this issue. The Obama administration is committed to putting an end to sexual violence -- particularly on college campuses. That's why the President established the Task Force earlier this year with a mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to combat sexual assault on their campuses.

As part of that work, the Education Department released updated guidance earlier this week describing the responsibilities of colleges, universities and schools receiving federal funds to address sexual violence and other forms of sex discrimination under Title IX. The guidelines provide greater clarity about the requirements of the law around sexual violence -- as requested by institutions and students.

All colleges, and universities and K-12 schools receiving federal funds must comply with Title IX. Schools that violate the law and refuse to address the problems identified by OCR 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.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley