What is this project?
This project tracks federal investigations of colleges for possible violations of the gender-equity law Title IX involving alleged sexual violence. It includes all investigations in this wave of enforcement: those either open now or resolved since April 4, 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter exhorting colleges to resolve students’ reports of sexual assault — and to protect them throughout the process.
Here you can search federal investigations by institution or keyword; see which ones are open and which are resolved; filter them by status, state, and other factors; and learn the context. You can sign up for weekly alerts. And you can ask us questions or let us know how your college and others are responding to sexual assault. As we gather more information — like the federal investigations’ case files, which are coming in through the Freedom of Information Act — we will add it to the site.
This project is focused on federal enforcement. It does not document each step in state or federal legislation on campus sexual assault, colleges’ internal investigations of students’ reports, or related lawsuits.
Why is there so much discussion of campus sexual assault?
It isn’t clear that incidents are on the rise, but in recent years, activists built a strong movement to seek justice for victims, often called survivors. And it found support in Washington. The Obama administration had put colleges on notice with its pivotal letter in April 2011, and students employed Title IX as a vehicle for change, filing federal complaints against their colleges to allege missteps at nearly every juncture. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating more colleges. As institutions scrambled to respond, a backlash arose, from due-process advocates and accused men who felt a rush to judgment. Longtime leaders can’t recall another issue that has so consumed colleges.
Why do colleges judge rape?
Back in 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, no one expected it to make colleges responsible for adjudicating sexual assault. The gender-equity law was meant to bar discrimination in education. That is now interpreted to mean that colleges must investigate and resolve students’ reports of sexual misconduct of any kind. The evolution happened gradually, in large part through precedents set by court cases starting in the early 1980s. Students sued schools and colleges for mishandling their reports, and rulings established sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, with assault the most severe form. Victims of rape came to be considered subjects of discrimination under Title IX.
If colleges don’t handle such cases promptly and fairly, they may be found to have created a hostile environment for learning. The Education Department has been increasingly prescriptive, telling colleges how to conduct an investigation, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and take "interim measures to protect the complainant."
What about the police?
A campus investigation is separate from a criminal investigation, and both can happen simultaneously. It depends where the victim decides to report the assault. Some victims feel intimidated by the prospect of going to police officers, for reasons including a sense that they may doubt or blame victims, particularly in cases of acquaintance rape. In several states, lawmakers have proposed requiring colleges to notify law-enforcement authorities of students’ reports, but advocates worry that such measures would discourage victims from coming forward.
In fact, colleges have less discretion to pursue cases than law-enforcement agencies do. District attorneys can hear accusations and decide not to press charges for lack of evidence, and that’s often what happens. But colleges are legally obligated to resolve students’ reports. When both investigations happen, they can produce different results. The legal system weighs whether an alleged perpetrator, beyond a reasonable doubt, committed a crime. The campus system evaluates whether that person more likely than not violated a conduct code.
How does the Education Department decide to investigate a college?
Investigations begin either in response to a formal civil-rights complaint or as a result of a proactive compliance review. In the spring of 2013, students started filing more complaints, often announcing them at news conferences. Organizers of the movement to hold colleges accountable for mishandling reports of sexual assault made that an explicit strategy, and groups like Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus have helped students file federal complaints to put pressure on campus leaders. A compliance review is more like a spot check. But some people think that where the government chooses to look depends in part on informal tips and news reports.
What does an investigation entail?
To most observers, and even some participants, the investigation process is opaque. The civil-rights office informs the college that it is under investigation and whether that’s based on a compliance review or a complaint. In the latter case, the complaint is generally not made available to the college. Federal officials request a great deal of information — policies, training materials, incident reports, investigation notes, hearing documents — and visit the campus to interview students and employees.
Investigations can take months or years, and they are resolved in different ways. Some conclude quietly, with the designation “early complaint resolution,” “administrative closure,” or “insufficient evidence.” Others result in a letter of findings, which the college does not see until the end of the process, and a negotiated resolution agreement detailing the policies and procedures a college must adopt or change. Those often include expanding training programs for students, faculty, and staff; conducting regular climate surveys; and reviewing past cases. For several years going forward, the civil-rights office monitors the college’s progress. The latest settlements show that investigations are getting tougher.
What will come of all these investigations?
There is little doubt that this wave of attention has prompted colleges to step up prevention and response to campus sexual assault. New regulations have required prevention programs for students. Task forces and climate surveys are now common. Institutions with sufficient resources have hired dedicated Title IX coordinators and investigators.
In May 2014, when the civil-rights office first publicly named the colleges under investigation, 55 were on the list. As of May 2016, there are 235 open investigations at 185 institutions. Comparatively few have been resolved. The Obama administration’s 2016 budget request included $131 million for the office, so it could hire an additional 200 full-time employees. The assistant secretary for civil rights said she could use 500. The office ended up with $107 million. With so many investigations pending, a new president could bring a different approach.. But many people are working to keep this issue on the agenda.