February 11, 2014

University under federal investigation for sexual assault policy

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.”