By Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder

Washington and Lee University has joined the list of more than 100 colleges facing federal investigations about accusations that they mishandled sexual violence complaints.

A student filed a report with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights saying she was discriminated against based on her sex, University President Ken Ruscio said in an email to the W&L community Feb. 21. The student alleges that the discrimination happened during an investigation by the school last spring of her complaint that she had been sexually assaulted.

If the federal agency finds the student was discriminated against, it would constitute a violation of Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires gender equality in educational programs that receive government funding.

The federal office will investigate the university’s sexual assault policy as a whole in addition to reviewing the student’s specific complaint. The U.S. Department of Education releases the names of schools under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights but does not disclose any further facts on its website.

Second complaint this year

The civil rights complaint is the second outside challenge this academic year to the university’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints. In December a former student filed a “John Doe” federal lawsuit against the school, claiming he was expelled after being found guilty of sexual assault based on false accusations.

Dean of Students Sidney Evans said the lawsuit and Office of Civil Rights cases arose from separate reports. W&L filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A federal judge is scheduled to hear the motion in May.

At W&L, the Student Faculty Hearing Board is charged with hearing and judging cases of prohibited student discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, hazing by individuals and retaliation, according to the University’s website. Four students and four faculty members are appointed by the student government to serve on the board.

Members of the SFHB are barred from talking about any cases under their jurisdiction whether they are pending or resolved.

The Rockbridge Report also reached out to members of SPEAK, an organization of W&L students that, according to its Facebook page, speaks out against sexual assault. Members would not comment specifically on either case.

SPEAK encourages healthy conversations about sexual assault during SPEAK week, events and speeches aimed at supporting survivors of assault and lowering the rate of sexual assault at W&L.

“It is an uncomfortable and often triggering subject, but it’s so important to acknowledge that it happens here at W&L,” said junior Alice Moore, who helps head SPEAK week.

The recent civil rights complaint is the university’s second challenge from outside the school this year over its handling of sexual assault cases.

In his email to the community, Ruscio said the female student’s civil rights complaint alleges the University “subjected her to unequal and overly restrictive confidentiality requirements” and failed to provide “appropriate protective measures during the proceedings and remedial measures after finding the male student responsible.

“We will, of course, use this opportunity to review our efforts with respect to the student,” Ruscio said in the email. “As with all our students, she will continue to have our ongoing support.”

W&L Title IX Coordinator Lauren Kozak said that if a student is not satisfied with the school’s handling of an investigation, that student can go through an appeal process on campus. But legal action outside the school, including filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, is also an option.

Ruscio pledged full cooperation with the investigation. He said in the email that the administration could not comment further.

Other schools on the list

The list of 101 colleges under investigation by the federal civil rights office includes the University of Virginia, Harvard Law School and Princeton University. The investigations at those schools have lasted more than three years and still show an “active” status.

Last May, the office found Virginia Military Institute violated Title IX by engaging in sex discrimination.

According to its report, “female cadets were exposed to a sexually hostile environment and . . . VMI failed to provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of cadet complaints alleging sexual harassment and sexual assault, as required by Title IX.”

VMI Director of Communication and Marketing Col. Stewart MacInnis says the school has complied with the Office of Civil Rights’ recommended changes to the school’s policies.

“Institutions need to stay on top of sexual assault and sexual violence all the time,” MacInnis said. “You may have success one year, but you may not have success the following year.”

The office approved a new policy on sexual harassment and assault developed by VMI for the 2014-2015 school year.

The Office of Civil Rights says it acts as a neutral fact-finder in cases. Just because a college is under investigation does not mean the school has violated Title IX.

On Wednesday night at Washington and Lee, SPEAK showed “It Happened Here,” a documentary about the way schools have handled – or mishandled – reports of sexual assault on their campuses.

W&L sophomore Stephanie Fouts, who attended the documentary, said she took a casual survey of her friends at W&L and that about one in four of them told her he or she had experienced some form of sexual assault.

“I feel like we live on a very sexually repressed campus, and it perpetuates the cycle of violence,” Fouts said. “Being able to educate people about what is healthy and what is right as opposed to just what is wrong is very important.”

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