The U.S. Department of Education is investigating American University for allegedly mishandling a student’s report of sexual assault, the second federal government probe of the District school in less than two years.
In an email to students this week, AU officials said the department’s Office for Civil Rights is looking into a complaint received in March that accuses the private university of failing to “promptly and equitably” respond to an April 2015 report of sexual assault. School officials say they received notice of the investigation last week that said the probe does not imply that the department “has made a determination on the merits of the complaint.” AU said officials will respond to the government’s request for information as part of the investigation.
The announcement marks the second time in as many years that the department has investigated AU’s compliance with the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX in connection with sexual violence cases. Department officials announced the other investigation in March 2015 without disclosing further details.
“Sexual assault is a devastating experience that we work to prevent and respond to in our community,” school officials wrote in an email to the community on Monday. “AU has worked diligently to develop policies and procedures that are compliant with OCR guidance, and it has pursued continuous improvement in its support services for survivors of sexual violence.”
There were 195 colleges with open sexual violence investigations as of last week, according to the Education Department.
Though the AU notice makes no mention of the details of the case, the dates listed line up with a complaint filed by rising senior Faith Ferber. The AU student said she received a call from a lawyer at the Education Department in early June, informing her of plans to begin an investigation into a complaint she filed in March; federal officials also indicated to her that they would be sending a letter notifying her school on June 21. Department officials would not discuss the ongoing case but confirmed that the AU investigation was opened on June 21.
Ferber said she was sexually assaulted in February 2015 at a sorority party by a student in one of the school’s fraternities. Even though she is the co-founder of Students Against Sexual Violence, Ferber said she wrestled with whether to come forward to report the assault. When she got up the courage two months later, Ferber said the university made her sign a confidentiality agreement before proceeding with a hearing.
The Washington Post generally does not identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Ferber spoke openly about her ordeal and chose to have her name included in the account.
At first, Ferber was pleased with the way the school handled her case. There were no “victim-blaming” questions and the investigation wrapped up in a few weeks, she said. But the actual hearing kept getting pushed back. Once the hearing got underway in October, Ferber said it moved quickly after the student she accused accepted responsibility at an internal AU proceeding. She was heartened when university officials asked for her input on his punishment.
But instead of the suspension Ferber requested, her alleged attacker received a year’s probation.
“I was livid,” Ferber said. “I felt completely disrespected. They asked me what sanctions I wanted and they didn’t give him anything that I asked for. They put an assailant over a survivor. It was clear during the hearing that this isn’t going to scare him … he clearly doesn’t understand consent.”
Ferber felt powerless over the school’s decision, until she participated in a sexual assault panel and was encouraged to take action. She said she learned that AU might have violated Title IX by taking longer than 60 days to resolve the case and by requiring the confidentiality agreement.
“I would love to see the university take responsibility,” Ferber said. “It would go a long way to have someone at the university say ‘maybe we did mess up and it wasn’t our intention’ … instead of trying to make me look like I’m being dramatic, and trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
By law, schools cannot require students who file a complaint to abide by a non-disclosure agreement. AU officials say they expect students to treat the hearing proceedings as confidential, but the agreement does not prevent students from telling their stories or talking about the outcome of cases. Ferber argues that university officials warned her that she was in violation of the agreement when she posted on Facebook that the hearing was happening.
AU officials say that if a person were to post that a hearing is getting underway, that would not be a violation, but posting a quote from the hearing would be a violation; AU officials said they cannot comment on the specifics of such cases.
Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said that while schools have to protect confidentiality during the hearing process, they walk a fine line by instituting agreements because of the non-disclosure ban.
“There is concern that survivors of sexual assault are being silenced,” she said, noting that a number of schools have similar confidentiality agreements. “Requiring students to sign such agreements can have a chilling effect in terms of their ability to speak out about their experiences and problems they’ve faced in the way their schools have handled sexual assault.”
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