The federal complaint filed against Columbia last week is the latest in a series of sexual assault-related complaints against universities across the country.
Last Thursday, 23 Barnard and Columbia students filed a complaint against the University, alleging violations of the Clery Act, Title II, and Title IX.
“This complaint makes it part of a wave of complaints that are being filed on the administrative level with the department of education,” said Christina Brandt-Young, a senior staff attorney for Legal Momentum, a defense and education fund that focuses on women’s issues. “No one knows for sure how many have been filed related to college campuses and sexual assault because the Department of Education doesn’t like to publicize when complaints are under investigation.”
The complaint filed against Columbia is unusual, both because of its scale—23 students filed as a group—and because it included a Title II complaint.
“Having the Title II claim in there is unusual, and it’s also quite sophisticated really for a couple of reasons,” Brandt-Young said. “One of which is that sexual harassment and sexual assault frequently lead to what we would call ... emotional instability that can rise to the level of a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Brandt-Young also said that the large number of complainants points to a systemic issue with Columbia’s policy.
“It’s not the biggest complaint we’ve ever seen,” she said, citing the University of California, Berkeley’s case from February 2014 when 31 women filed two federal Title IX complaints.
Businessweek, in an article published earlier this month, estimated that at least 13 Clery Act complaints were filed against universities in the past year.
Though the number of cases is difficult to pin down precisely, there has been a steady increase in the number of public Title IX complaints against colleges and universities in the past few years. In 2011, sixteen students filed a complaint against Yale. In 2013, students filed complaints against Dartmouth, Occidental College, Vanderbilt College, the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Then, at the end of March of this year, two students filed a complaint against Harvard.
Filing the complaint with the DOE is the first step in determining if a university’s policies are federally non-compliant.
When a complaint is filed, the Office for Civil Rights,, a subset of the DOE, determines whether the complaint outlines a violation in one of the laws the OCR oversees, and whether it has sufficient detail regarding those violations.
If the complaint is associated to a discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or disability, the OCR begins its investigation of the university to determine whether a violation occurred.
Olivia Ortiz, a junior at the University of Chicago, filed a Title IX complaint in April 2013 for violations because the university recommended an informal mediation session between her and the student she accused of rape.
Ortiz said that the administration was being dismissive of her case, treating her as an “hysterical woman coming with these allegations of rape.” So Ortiz spoke to the University of Chicago’s paper, The Chicago Maroon, before going to a pro-bono lawyer from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation for advice.
“Before I went to my lawyer’s office, I didn’t know, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know specifically that my Title IX rights were violated, and had no idea what Title IX really meant before going to the office—let alone that I had these rights protected by the government especially in a sexual assault case,” she told Spectator on Monday.
Ortiz filed a complaint in April 2013, and it wasn’t until June that the OCR opened an investigation based on her complaints.
Ortiz’s complaint is still being investigated, but the University of Chicago announced on Feb. 6 that it will be examining its practices regarding sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination, and that larger policy changes will be announced in the summer.
While it will likely be a while before the DOE announces how it will proceed with the complaint filed by 23 Columbia and Barnard students, investigations at other schools are moving along. On Monday, the DOE announced it had officially launched a probe into the complaint at Harvard. The DOE also found that Tufts was in violation of Title IX from a 2010 case that involved a student’s complaint about how the university handled her alleged sexual assault case.
Tufts’ administration, which denies violating Title IX, may lose its federal funding if it doesn’t sign an agreement with the OCR.
And today, President Barack Obama, CC ’83, is expected to release guidelines that colleges should follow to aggressively combat sexual assaults on college campuses, including a recommended anonymous survey of sexual assault to be conducted every three years.
“Schools can’t respond to assaults and wait for them to happen,” Brandt-Young said. “They’re also supposed to improve the campus climate around sexual harassment and provide a safe environment for students free of sexual harassment, sexual violence, that’s what Title IX is all about.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated President Barack Obama's graduation year. Spectator regrets the error.