University under federal investigation for sexual assault policy

The University has also convened its own committee to look into the issue.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has launched a campus-wide investigation into the University of Chicago’s potential breach of Title IX, a law to prevent sex-based discrimination.

Stemming from a student’s formal complaint placed with the Office on March 15, 2013, OCR will now broaden its investigation to assess the University’s policies and practices regarding sexual misconduct. The federal investigation will involve a review of University records, interviews with staff members, and student focus groups.

Fourth-year Olivia Ortiz filed the original complaint on the claim that the University had mishandled disciplinary procedures after she was sexually assaulted by her then-partner, who has since graduated, over the course of the 2011–2012 academic year. OCR accepted her case in June 2013, based both on the content of Ortiz’s original complaint and on the Maroon Sexual Assault Investigative series from fall 2012, which was cited in the original complaint.

However, the launch of a campus-wide investigation, which was made known to University officials in mid-January, is not based solely on Ortiz’s original complaint. After a limited investigation of Ortiz’s case last quarter, OCR will now widen the scope of its inquiry.

“I got a call from my lawyer, and she said they will be opening an investigation of the entire campus. Based on the findings of my investigation, they decided it was appropriate to open a new investigation of the entire campus,” Ortiz said.

Lawyers from Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), Ortiz’s legal counsel, were not able to comment but did confirm that they represent Ortiz in an ongoing investigation.

The first OCR focus group convened Monday afternoon, bringing together six students from anti–sexual violence student groups and two OCR attorneys. Students were asked about the campus climate of sexual violence, but the discussion centered on the University’s disciplinary process for accusations of sexual assault, according to third-year Veronica Portillo Heap, the director of the Clothesline Project.

“[The lawyers] stressed that their presence [on campus] does not indicate that the University is in the right or in the wrong,” Heap said. “They said that these investigations culminate in a ‘letter of findings’ that states whether an institution is or is not in compliance with Title IX.”

The University has said that it has made every effort to comply with the OCR inquiry and will incorporate any OCR findings into its own efforts to reexamine the student disciplinary processes for cases of sexual misconduct, unlawful harassment, and discrimination. As a part of this separate examination, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum has convened a faculty committee to review the issue further, the University announced in a press release last week.

“The University is committed to ensuring that its educational programs and work environment are free from unlawful discrimination under Title IX,” University spokesperson Steve Kloehn said in an e-mail.

Per the Department of Education’s guidelines, the investigation will finish in fewer than 180 days. The University has also pledged to implement a revised disciplinary process by July 1.

After going to Dean of Students Susan Art (A.M. ’74) with a complaint of sexual assault in June 2012, Ortiz claims that she was offered and encouraged to seek informal mediation, a process in which the accused and accuser are brought into the same room to discuss the incident.

“The offer of an informal mediation between a sexual assault survivor and perpetrator is prohibited under Title IX,” the supplement to the complaint said. “It is also prohibited by the University’s own policies, even on a voluntary basis, in matters involving allegations of sexual assault.”

Art categorized the accusation of assault as a “dispute between students,” according to Ortiz and the original complaint filed by Ortiz’s attorney. However, in an e-mail sent to Ortiz in November 2012 following a Maroon article, Art stated that her “recollection of our conversation was quite different” and invited Ortiz for a follow-up conversation, which Ortiz declined. All efforts by the Maroon to speak with University officials were directed to Kloehn.

“What I told [Art] was how the University defines a sexual assault. To reclassify it, and to almost convince me of thinking that it was something else, makes me very wary that the University is under-reporting sexual assaults. This does no help whatsoever,” Ortiz said.

Under-reporting of cases of sexual assault violates the Clery Act, a federal law that requires universities to report information regarding criminal activity on campus.

Representatives from the Department of Education could not be reached on Monday for comment, but Kloehn stated that OCR has not characterized the campus investigation as a Clery compliance inquiry.

In recent years, the Department of Education has made ardent strides to clamp down on campus sex crimes, which affects one in five women and 6.1 percent of men. Last month, President Obama announced a new task force to address sexual assault on college campuses. OCR is also investigating or has previously investigated Yale University, Dartmouth College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Swarthmore College, and Amherst College, among others.

This year has also seen an uptick in sexual assault survivor and awareness student groups on campus. Since this past summer, the director of resources for sexual violence prevention has become a full-time employee position (having previously been a part-time role), and Student Government has founded its first sexual assault working group, which aims to educate incoming first-years about their rights, both at the legal and at the University level.

Ortiz herself has gone on to help found the Phoenix Survivor Alliance, a sexual assault survivor group, which published a 52-page resource and rights guide for the University of Chicago community last quarter. While the support group run out of Student Health Services only accepts women, Phoenix accepts individuals irrespective of their gender identification.

As part of the investigation into her case, Ortiz sat down for a five-hour interview with an OCR attorney in September 2013.

“Most importantly, I really wanted [UChicago] to be more adherent to their own policies. Survivors shouldn’t have to worry about the law being broken when they go to somebody for help. They should know their rights up-front, and if these rights are violated, who they can contact,” she said. “I didn’t want anything monetary out of it. Most importantly I wanted an apology from the school. It’s pretty much those two things, just improvements and an apology.”

Correction - Feb 11, 2014: Due to an editing error, a previous version of the article misstated the day of the first OCR meeting.
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  • Hope

    You are brave and amazing Olivia!

  • Taylor

    This is so important. I’m glad the Maroon is reporting on something that matters, and I’m glad Olivia has had the courage to address what I can only call an irresponsible and unresponsive administration.

  • Professor Emeritus

    If this threatens the University’s tax-exempt status, I’m going to be pissed.

    • Hope

      Pissed at whom? Also it wouldn’t threaten tax-exempt status, it would threaten federal funds that the university receives.

      • Oh Really

        appears to be an ill-conceived attempt at humor.

    • Em

      I hope you mean you’d be pissed at the University.

  • M

    Thank you for speaking up for all of us! Olivia, you are the best.

  • Silence Nogood

    About f#*%ing time. Burn, victim-blaming defenders of rapists and abusers. Also “…affects one in five women and 6.1 percent of men.” #classicMaroon

  • Alum

    If the U’s administration is at fault, seeing the resignations and/or terminations of any faculty with a part in this would be a start

    • Oh Really

      don’t conflate administration with faculty!

  • re to ALUM

    Placing an individual at the center of this distorts the purpose of the investigation. What’s problematic is the systemic structure that promotes individuals (e.g. Dean of Students etc.) covering up sexual assault.

    Glad to see this investigation taking place.

  • Autumn

    This was a completely avoidable situation. The University has known itself to be in violation of Title IX policies since at least 2009; if the administration had been willing to take action in response to student agitation and activity then, this student (and I’m sure others as well) could at least have been spared the added pain of a hamhanded and unequitable disciplinary process.

  • Grateful

    Thanks, Olivia, for doing this for the rest of us and helping to make the campus a safe place. So grateful this is happening.

  • Anon

    Can we get some facts about this alleged sexual assault? Because reading between the lines, this woman Olivia sounds like her definition of sexual assault is insanely wide. The man/woman that assaulted her was her partner, and he/she assaulted her for a year? That doesn’t sound like sexual assault. You don’t keep dating someone that sexually assaults you.

    • Re: Anon

      Anon, it turns out that people do stay in abusive relationships all the time. For many reasons, it can be incredibly difficult to extract yourself from a relationship that is physically, sexually, and/or psychologically abusive. Since I assume your interest in this topic stems from a desire to help women in these kinds of situations, this might be a good place to start learning about the complexity of intimate partner violence:

    • Veronica

      Excuse me? This is such an ignorant comment. Do you think people dating each other necessarily have unlimited rights to each other’s bodies??? Do you actually think consent is no longer an issue?
      Abusive relationships exist and the reality is that some people sexually assault their intimate partners. Go away and keep your victim-blaming rape apologist comments to yourself.

  • anon is ignorant

    i am still confused about the difference between sexual assault and rape. im pretty sure touching your girlfriend (or boyfriend)’s butt could count as sexual assault if it was unwelcome, but partner rape is much more prevalent than stranger rape, for instance.

    • Sharon L.

      Sexual assault and rape may be interchangeable terms, or they may mean different things, depending on who is speaking. It varies state by state and institution by institution. Many institutions are loath to classify something as “rape,” even when it obviously is, because that word makes them look bad. The bottom line is that coerced sexual activity without a partner’s consent is wrong, even if it does not necessarily involve the genitals or penetration.

  • Andrew

    It sounds like the lawsuit has merit. If so, the University was stupid not to comply with its own policy and federal law.

    Having said that, it seems wrongheaded in the extreme to ban offering an informal mediation session between the victim and the accused. Of course, it is completely inappropriate to *pressure* anyone into meeting their rapist. But I don’t see what is achieved by banning the mere suggestion of the possibility.

    In this case, it is clear that Olivia did not such session. That is her right. But there are other cases where talking it out under mediation is exactly the thing needed to hold the perpetrator accountable. Punishment alone doesn’t always do that. Conversation, especially about painful topics, can hold people accountable in way that actually encourages behavior change and provides genuine closure.

    Personally, I want to live in a world where people are always given the option to settle their disputes non-coercively. It’s easy to sell vengeance to people in pain, but it’s often the wrong medicine. Unfortunately, it’s the one the legal system often prescribes, or even forces.

    I am *not* saying that anyone is obligated to address their rapist in such a fashion, or that any rapist should be able to get out punishment if that’s what the victim wants. So please don’t troll me as if I were suggesting that.

  • Sara

    Andrew, the reason why mediation should not have even been offered is because that is against standard practice in law and social work: If one party has been lying, intimidating the other, or may have perpetrated abuse of some kind, mediation is not an acceptable option. What’s really telling about your response is “settle their disputes”. Sexual assault is not a dispute. Now, of course Olivia could have requested mediation, but allowing the administration to offer it lets them do what Susan Art did, and pretend that rape and sexual assault are disputes, and not one person victimizing another. It’s not an equal playing field.

  • Don

    I thought UChicago students, grads and staff are riogorous thinkers. Pls. think this one through:

    * No one is accusing UC administrators, themselves, of committing any rapes or sexual assaults.

    * If a UC student rapes or sexually assaults a fellow UC student, that is a felony. The rapist should go to jail. That’s a matter for the Chicago Police Dep’t and Illinois prosecutors — not for the impotent UC, powerless to incarcerate felons or to punish felons adequately. (All the UC has power to do is offer soft remedies like mediation or expulsion. Obviously no one here wants to let a felon off with a mediation or an expulsion.)

    * Hyde Park is in America. In America we’re innocent till proven guilty. The commenters here seem a bit quick to condemn accused people who are still legally innocent. Don’t forget civil liberties and due process of law. The ACLW, for example, would be on the side of the accused here — let’s not condemn anyone without due process.

    * Victims of rape and sexual assault in the general population (off the UC campus — for example, victims of rape in a public high school) enjoy civil and criminal remedies in our state courts. If those state-court civil and criminal remedies are good enough for the rest of America, and good enough for high schoolers, what do you expect UC to do here that’s more powerful than what our courts can do? Why blame UC for not being able to exercise police powers it doesn’t have?

    * The Ttile IX and federal investigation issues seem to be a distraction. What is Title IX going to do for a victim of a rape? If your daughter got raped on a college campus, would you call the police — or a Title IX enforcer? Does Title IX give a college-student rape victim more rights than a rape victim who’s a waitress at a TGIFridays? Isn’t it elitist to demand something for college students victims of sexual assault at elite universities while not demanding the same protections for high schoolers, waitresses and other victims marginalized in society? If our state court civil and criminal remedies are not strong enough for rape/sexual assault victims, let’s imporve the remedies for everyone, even poor people and high schoolers. Let’s not begin by implementing extra protections only available to victims who happen to attend university.

    Pls. think this through a bit better. Demand real justice for ALL sexual assault and rape victims — using (maybe improving) our courts and police, those with power to incarcerate felons. Don’t pick on impotent universities powerless adequately to punish felons. Let’s uphold the civil liberties and due process rights of those who remain legally innocent. Let’s stop championing elitist double standards — extra protections for students at elite universities but not for high schoolers, single mothers, the working poor, or the disenfranchised.

  • MLacey

    Someone should investigate Dean Susan Art and her complacency and assistence in covering up felonies that occur on the University of Chicago campus.

  • Kanishka Ray

    If a crime was committed, the University shouldn’t even have to get involved. Sexual assault is a violent crime and a felony criminal complaint. It should be immediately directed to the Chicago Police, The police should be in charge of all the necessary medical evidence that needs to be collected. I’m not really seeing what the University’s role here is supposed to be?

    Now the University offering mediation is wrong…I don’t even know why that was allowed to happen though? Why weren’t the police already involved? What type of power does the University have to stop you from calling the cops (and I mean the real cops, not the campus police)?

    • Biggles Wurth

      The University should direct students to the proper authorities

  • Biggles Wurth

    Always file criminal charges and a complaint with the local police department. This is not the first University to do this.