University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan speaks during a board of visitors meeting about sexual assault on Nov. 25 in Charlottesville, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/AP)

As growing numbers of students report sexual violence, those who seek justice through internal channels at colleges are learning that even when allegations are upheld, school officials are often reluctant to impose their harshest punishment on the attackers: expulsion.

Federal data on college discipline obtained by The Washington Post suggest that students found responsible for sexual assault are as likely to be ordered to have counseling or given a reprimand as they are to be kicked out. They are much more likely to be suspended and then allowed to finish their studies.

The University of Virginia has expelled no students for sexual misconduct in the past decade, a record that has intensified scrutiny of the public flagship university now at the center of debate on campus sexual assault. Why, skeptics ask, has U-Va. dismissed dozens of students for academic cheating in recent years but none for sexual assault?

“I am concerned about the way we approach this and whether we are approaching it correctly,” U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said in an interview with The Post. She acknowledged that the school is reviewing “the way in which we adjudicate these issues.”

That review and other efforts to improve campus safety, as well as an ongoing federal probe of U-Va.’s record on sexual violence, underscore that sexual assault is likely to remain a high-profile issue at the university even after the unraveling of a Rolling Stone magazine article on an alleged fraternity gang rape there.

In contrast with U-Va., the University of Maryland, Georgetown University and George Mason University told The Post they have issued a small number of expulsions for sexual misconduct in the past two years.

National debate about campus sexual assault — flaring this year at all levels of higher education, from the Ivy League to community colleges — has opened a window onto the largely hidden world of student discipline.

College officials, explaining why expulsion is not more prevalent, point out that sexual misconduct encompasses a range of offenses, from rape to harassment. They say that the nuances of he-said-she-said incidents must be taken into account. They say that collegiate tribunals are not run like criminal courts. Sometimes, too, the threat of litigation makes a difference.

Last year officials at Virginia Wesleyan College, a small private college in Norfolk, decided to dismiss a male student who had been found responsible for engaging in sexual activity with a female student against her will. A few months later, the school softened the punishment, allowing the man’s exit to be reclassified as a withdrawal — “which may assist him in seeking further studies,” David E. Buckingham, the school’s vice president for student affairs, wrote to the woman, explaining the decision.

“I was so shocked that they let him go and just changed everything,” the woman told The Post. “They just kind of cowardly backed down.”

The woman, now 21, was a freshman at the time but is no longer enrolled there. She filed a lawsuit against the college in October, under the pseudonym Jane Doe, alleging negligence in the August 2012 incident. The Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Virginia Wesleyan has denied negligence. An attorney for Virginia Wesleyan, Mark C. Nanavati, said the shift in punishment was meant to avoid the possibility that the man would sue to overturn the disciplinary proceeding. Nanavati said the male former student remains ineligible for readmission, but his transcript is no longer marked with an expulsion. That would help in applications to other schools.

The Post is not identifying the man because he has not been charged with a crime. Franklin Olmsted, an attorney in La Plata, Md., who has represented him, said the college made “the wrong initial decision” about the matter but declined to elaborate. “I don’t think he will be making any statements,” Olmsted said.

Advocates for the rights of accused students often say that colleges are ill-equipped to investigate sexual assault and that cases should be left to police, prosecutors and criminal courts. Experts say college officials generally are not required to notify police when they hear about alleged sexual assaults. But some Virginia lawmakers have proposed legislation that would mandate reporting such allegations to law enforcement.

Federal law, however, requires colleges to respond when students lodge complaints. Some students want police to investigate, but many do not. Regardless of whether they seek a criminal charge, these students want colleges to ensure that campuses are safe and free from intimidation.

With elected officials and student activists drawing attention to campus sexual assault nationwide, reports of incidents have risen sharply. New federal data show 5,054 reports of forcible sex offenses on U.S. campuses in 2013, up from 3,443 in 2011, a 47 percent increase in two years.

There is no comparable national data on how those reports were resolved.

But dozens of colleges and universities that receive grants from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women have answered surveys about internal discipline of sexual misconduct. Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the pattern of resolution at about 100 schools surveyed in 2012 and 2013. The information indicates that sexual offenders are often allowed to stay in school.

Of 478 sanctions meted out for sexual assault, 12 percent were expulsions and 28 percent were suspensions, according to the data. The rest were reprimands (13 percent), counseling orders (12 percent), community service orders (4 percent) and other, unspecified types of punishment.

The data also show 237 sexual assault cases were dismissed for lack of evidence or other reasons, and 44 ended in acquittal.

Vastly different systems

The statistics provide supporting information for those who argue that colleges are lax on sexual assault, but they also underscore the vast difference between student discipline and criminal justice. There is no way to compare confidential punishments for breaking rules to public sentences for criminal convictions.

Colleges publish scant information on penalties for sexual misconduct. Some say they do not want to risk revelations that could help identify individual students. They also say administrators must be able to tailor punishments to the circumstances.

Suzanne B. Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor who advises the school’s president about sexual assault prevention and response, said the Ivy League institution in New York on occasion has expelled students for sexual assault. But she noted that offenses covered by that term range from nonconsensual touching to rape.

“The idea that all rapists should be expelled is a powerful rallying cry,” Goldberg said. “Like many powerful rallying cries, it speaks in broad and general terms about a complex and often nuanced problem.”

In June, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire revised its policy to require expulsion in certain cases, including those involving sexual penetration in which a person has used physical force or threats, or has intentionally caused the incapacitation of a victim. The mandatory sanction is thought to be rare among colleges.

Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said the college thought that in certain circumstances “any reasonable person would agree that expulsion was warranted.” From 2002 to 2013, the college expelled three students for sexual misconduct and suspended 12.

Some worry about unintended consequences of mandatory sanctions.

“My fear is it would potentially hurt reporting, and hurt persons who want to come forward who may want a different outcome than expulsion,” said Matt Gregory, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. “Expulsion may not be something they want to support. Their voice needs to be included in the process.”

Nicole Eramo, an associate dean of students at U-Va., recently made this point in a videotaped interview with the student-run news organization WUVA. Eramo said some students who report an assault choose to resolve it through an informal process that allows them to confront accused students in the presence of an official.

“They’re not looking for expulsion,” Eramo told WUVA. “They’re not looking for that type of a sanction. They’re looking to be able to look into the eyes of that other person and say, ‘You wronged me in some way.’ And they’re generally feeling quite satisfied with the fact that the person has admitted that they’ve done something wrong.”

U-Va. confirmed that no student has been expelled from the university for sexual misconduct in the past 10 years.

The university’s Sexual Misconduct Board is required to consider suspension or expulsion if it finds through a formal hearing that a student broke the rules, but it may issue lesser punishments. In the 2013-14 school year, the board received five formal complaints. Three were resolved and two are pending. One student was found not guilty. One was suspended for a year, another for two years.

U-Va. did not disclose the precise nature of the offenses for the two students found to have broken the rules. The university imposed certain conditions for them to reenroll, such as counseling and “undergoing an alcohol evaluation,” spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said.

Within the university, some faculty members are urging U-Va.’s governing Board of Visitors to take a harder line. The board is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss campus safety.

“It is not enough to have expulsion available as an option,” Susan D. Fraiman, a U-Va. English professor, said. “U-Va. must publicize widely and emphatically its commitment to expelling — not merely suspending — students found by the university adjudication process to be guilty of rape. If the Board of Visitors is serious about its policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual assault, it will need to establish guidelines for sanctions that put some teeth in this policy.”

Case-by-case decision

Several Washington-area universities said they have expelled students in recent years for sexual misconduct.

Georgetown said that it had 12 fully adjudicated sexual assault cases from September 2012 to last month: Four students were cleared, six received suspensions and two were expelled, a spokeswoman said.

At U-Md., four students were found responsible for sexual assault involving penetration in the 2013-14 school year. One was expelled, two were suspended and one was placed on disciplinary probation. An additional U-Md. student was expelled for sexual exploitation, an offense defined as taking sexual advantage of another person without that person’s consent.

At George Mason, four students were found responsible for misconduct in 2013 in cases involving sexual assault: Three were expelled and one was suspended. An additional student was expelled this year for sexual misconduct.

George Washington University reported three formal sexual violence cases in the past two school years, resulting in one suspension. American University reported a similar tally for three sexual assault cases resolved since fall 2012: One student was suspended for a semester and two were cleared.

Gail Short Hanson, vice president of campus life at AU, said the school sometimes expels students for sexual misconduct. “It is on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “I’ve never encountered anything that’s not controversial around this topic. People desire clarity, and there’s not a lot of clarity here. There’s only trying your best to understand what happened . . . and taking the appropriate steps to achieve justice.”

U-Va. is one of 90 colleges and universities under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence reports. Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, declined to discuss the U-Va. probe, now in its fourth year.

But in general, Lhamon said, she would scrutinize a college that expels students for plagiarism but not sexual assault.

“If penalties imposed for other types of offenses are significantly more serious than penalties imposed for findings of sexual misconduct, that raises a set of concerns for us,” Lhamon said. She said penalties in such cases send a message “about what the school values, what the school finds acceptable on its campus.”

How colleges address sexual misconduct
Statistics on resolution of cases at about 120 schools that answered surveys related to certain Justice Department grants in 2012 and 2013.

(Source: Justice Department Office on Violence Against Women.)