Past Investigations Can Offer Clues in UNC-CH Case

Monday, March 18, 2013

As North Carolina’s flagship university faces a deadline to answer questions about how it handles reports of sexual assault, federal officials’ track record and past investigations can offer clues to the price the school may pay.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has until Thursday to respond to questions as part of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Five women filed a complaint in January with the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights, and the OCR said this month that it would investigate.

The five – three students, one former student and a former assistant dean of students – alleged violations of Title IX, education’s gender-equity law, in the handling of sexual assault cases. They filed another federal complaint under the Clery Act, a law that often deals with the underreporting of on- and off-campus crimes. UNC-CH has denied underreporting crimes and said it’s cooperating with the OCR investigation.

The OCR has never wielded its biggest stick, withdrawal of federal funding – a certain death for almost any school. After taking a hard-nosed approach a few years ago, the agency seems to have a taken a less strident stance, preferring to work with campus administrators to fix the problems rather than issue punishments, said Peter Lake, law professor at Stetson University.

“It’s become pretty clear that the department wanted to start emphasizing voluntary compliance and collaborative audits and reviews,” said Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Law and Policy at Stetson. “It doesn’t mean they won’t drop the hammer on people. But there’s a friendlier and more collaborative vibe coming from Washington on a lot of this.”

In 2010, the OCR came down hard on Eastern Michigan University and Notre Dame College in Ohio. EMU was fined more than $350,000 for Clery Act violations after a student was killed in her dorm room. Both schools had to revise, publish and review Title IX sexual harassment grievance procedures; designate Title IX coordinators to handle complaints; and provide training on Title IX.

In April 2011, the OCR published what’s known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, addressed to colleges and universities nationally. The DOE said it issued the letter to explain that Title IX covers sexual violence and “to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX.”

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