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SMU Facing Federal Sexual Assault Investigation

By Annie Potasznik | CBSDFW.COM |

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UNIVERSITY PARK (CBSDFW.COM) - One day after a male SMU student reported he was sexually assaulted on-campus, The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 higher education institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

“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 Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear 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.”

SMU is one of only two Texas universities on the list; the other is the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburgh.

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. In the past, Department officials confirmed individual Title IX investigations at institutions, but Thursday’s list is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review for possible violations of the law’s requirements around sexual violence.

The primary goal of the investigation is to ensure that the campus is in compliance with federal law, which demands that students are not denied the ability to participate fully in educational and other opportunities due to sex.

“I’m sure there is a problem if they are looking into so that is a bit concerning,” said SMU student Sophia Thawerbhoi.

The Department won’t disclose any case-specific facts or details about the institutions under investigation. The list includes investigations opened because of complaints received by OCR and those initiated by OCR as compliance reviews. When an investigation concludes, the Department will disclose, upon request, whether OCR has entered into a resolution agreement to address compliance concerns at a particular campus or found insufficient evidence of a Title IX violation there.

In 2012, SMU looked for ways to expedite the criminal side of the equation. Thus, SMU president Gerald Turner commissioned a 20-person task force on sexual misconduct policies and procedures. After 12 meetings over six months, the task force comprised of SMU students, alums, faculty, staff, members of law enforcement, and others put forth 41 recommendations, all of which were accepted by Turner.

The group reviewed research and recommendations from several other universities that had also established task forces on sexual assault and misconduct that year. Among the findings, a startling statistic: 20 percent of female students and 6 percent of male students were victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault during their college career.

Despite new initiatives such as educational programs for students, as well as mentoring and bystander intervention programs, in which students were empowered to step in to help classmates involved in high-risk situations — more sexual assaults have occurred on-campus. Since the creation of the task force, students were encouraged to report sexual misconduct without fear of reprisal and were granted immunity regarding alcohol or drug use when making a report. Also, victims of sexual misconduct at SMU were allowed to choose the options that best met their needs. The university also encouraged victims to inform law enforcement and get medical attention in a timely manner.

“They do keep us informed when something does happen and there’s always campus police around,” said SMU student Jackie Francis.

Following the news of a federal investigation, SMU released the following statement characterizing its internal approach to sexual assault policies as “aggressive.”

SMU applauds the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to eradicate sexual violence on college campuses and to provide universities with additional tools to combat sexual assault. Our goals are the same.
 
The matters under review by the Education Department have been investigated by SMU and predate our University task force review of sexual misconduct policies and procedures. The University has been aggressive in putting into practice wide-ranging new procedures to inform and protect our students, to provide prompt and effective resolution of complaints, and to hold violators accountable while treating all students fairly.

SMU continually reviews and updates its programs in comparison with national benchmarks, and we are pleased that the White House also has made these matters a priority for all American universities. No issue is more important than the health and safety of our students.

This is the first time the list of schools suspected of sexual violence problems has been made public.

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