The University of Maryland campus (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

 

After student government voted to impose a student fee to raise money to improve the University of Maryland’s ability to handle claims of campus sexual assault — an apparently unprecedented move, according to several national experts — university leaders have agreed to hire more staff to address the problem.

The student government voted earlier in the  semester to impose a $17-per-semester fee to raise nearly $1 million to address what they said were serious deficiencies at the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct. Student leaders said a shortage of staff had led to cases typically taking 140 days to investigate rather than the maximum of 60 days advised by the federal government.

The move was controversial — some students and outside experts felt it was inappropriate to ask students to pay to assure compliance with federal law.

And it was also emblematic of a national issue: As the number of sexual-assault complaints continues to rise, and as scrutiny on the institutions by the federal government intensifies, at many campuses the offices that handle such cases have found themselves stretched thin.

“The cost of providing Title IX services is really skyrocketing,” said Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, which draws its name from the federal law designed to protect students from discrimination based on sex. The group formed in 2011 after an Education Department directive known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” dramatically changed the way university officials responded to sexual-misconduct claims. The group now has more than 7,000 members nationwide.

“Most campuses are seeing double to triple the caseloads they were seeing in 2012,” Sokolow said, “and there are some cases where it’s eightfold or even higher. If all these efforts at education and training are designed to encourage more victims to come forward, and more victims are coming forward, it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to.”

But that leaves a lot of campuses in crisis, he said. “I’ve talked to case managers handling 18 cases at once.”

And the scores of new compliance regulations, federal investigations into more than 250 schools, and more sophisticated — and expensive — methods of investigating the claims are adding to the cost pressures, he said.

“Everyone is going to have to think very cleverly and creatively” to come up with funding options, Sokolow said, such as asking donors to think of Title IX support rather than naming buildings or endowing scholarships.

At U-Md., the student government proposal came after student leaders spoke with Catherine Carroll, the director of the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, who declined to be interviewed for this article. According to students, she said she could not handle cases more quickly unless she had more staff members and welcomed their proposal of a student fee.

U-Md. had already approved funding for three new staff members for the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct this year, according to a university statement Tuesday, including a deputy director, a sexual-misconduct investigator and a standing review committee coordinator.

“And effective immediately, we have approved new funding for another sexual misconduct investigator,” the statement from the university continued. “In addition, two new positions have been approved for the CARE to Stop Violence office in the University Health Center to increase counseling and outreach efforts.”

The university spends about $2 million a year on efforts across campus on this issue, including about $1 million for the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, according to the statement. “Preventing and investigating sexual misconduct is, and will always be, a priority for the University of Maryland.”

Student leaders will meet with U-Md.’s president, Wallace Loh, on Friday to talk about the university statement, A.J. Pruitt, a junior who is vice president of student affairs for the student government association, said Tuesday. “I think it’s a good start, and the addition of six positions on campus will help a lot.”

He said that the two positions added to the health center are funded by state grants, so those two jobs don’t represent an additional financial commitment from the university. There is still a gap that needs to be closed, he said, but the student government “is happy to finally be negotiating this with him. We do think we can come to an agreement.”

Pruitt said when students look at the millions the university spends on projects for athletics, or its new $75 million Do Good initiative, they may wonder why the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct seems to go underfunded.

“It comes down to priorities,” he said, noting he understands there are different funding streams and issues involved, “but it’s hard for students to see things like that and understand why we can’t come up with the less than $1 million a year to make sure this office complies with federal law.”

The proposal, first covered in the campus newspaper The Diamondback, almost unanimously passed the student legislature, 33 to 1.

In an editorial, the Diamondback questioned why students should have to pay for something mandated by federal law.

“The SGA’s effort is noble and perhaps even necessary. It should not have to be,” they wrote. “It is outrageous and reprehensible that at Maryland’s flagship institution, funding the only university defense against sexual violence and civil rights violations comes down to the students who themselves face these injustices.”

They heard from students upset about the prospect of another fee, said Nisha Desai, another student government leader. While U-Md. has one of the lowest tuition levels in the Big 10, it has among the highest student fees, she said, nearly $1,000 a year, and those costs aren’t covered by financial aid.

“We’ve heard, ‘I support funding the Title IX office and that resource being there for people who need it, but why should I have to shoulder that burden? Why is the university not doing anything?’”

“Any student who has had a friend who had a sexual assault or discrimination complaint knows the office is not at full functionality,” Desai said.

S. Daniel Carter, a campus security consultant and longtime victims rights advocate, said he appreciated the students’ concern and activism but was surprised by the proposal, because, “it concerns the institution’s ability to comply with something that they agreed to when they agreed to receive federal funding.”

Sokolow said that when colleges first agreed to comply with Title IX, it was before the U.S. Department of Education dramatically expanded the reach and scope of the law in 2011, and before 70 new mandates were imposed on colleges in 2013 in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Compliance requires resources, he said, and he expects many colleges will follow Maryland’s lead.

Crystal Brown, a spokeswoman for U-Md., said, “We have the same goal as the SGA, which is to properly fund the Title IX Office. We support the student’s advocacy of this critically important work.”

Pruitt said, “I’m proud of the student body for bringing this issue to the forefront.”

Here is the university’s response in full:

Preventing and investigating sexual misconduct is, and will always be, a priority for the University of Maryland.

We invest approximately $2 million annually in our cross-campus efforts, including over $1 million for the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct (OCRSM). Earlier this year, we approved funding for three new OCRSM staff positions, including a deputy director, a sexual misconduct investigator and a standing review committee coordinator. And effective immediately, we have approved new funding for another sexual misconduct investigator. In addition, two new positions have been approved for the CARE to Stop Violence office in the University Health Center to increase counseling and outreach efforts. In total, six new staff positions have been added this year to address sexual misconduct issues.

The University will also commence a thorough review of the current sexual misconduct investigative and adjudicative process, to ensure timely, thorough and fair policies and practices. All future recommendations for additional resources will be informed by this review and the work of the Sexual Assault Prevention, Task Force recently formed by the President and the University Senate.

Our response to sexual misconduct is a team effort led by the OCRSM that includes the CARE to Stop Violence, University Health Center, Office of Student Conduct, Office of the General Counsel, Office of Resident Life, Counseling Center and others. We commend the work of the Student Government Association to advocate for this critical issue. We all share the same goal and working together we will continue to invest resources to work toward a campus environment that is free from sexual misconduct and sexual assaults.