Dept. of Education acknowledges investigation into sexual assault policies at UVA, other schools

UVA's Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs. UVA’s Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs.

Last week’s release of a list of schools under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual assault cases has again drawn attention to UVA’s policies on rape.

The fact that UVA is among the 55 schools targeted for Title IX investigations isn’t news; as C-VILLE reported last year, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights put the University under review in June of 2011, not long after UVA updated its policies to bring them into line with a federal directive to apply a less-strict standard of evidence when adjudicating sexual assault cases. According to the DOE, because sexual assault is a gender-based crime, schools have a responsibility under the Title IX equal-access statute to take certain steps to prevent it—including adopting specific discipline policies.

But release of the list of colleges—which includes one other Virginia school, William & Mary, as well as Harvard, U.C. Berkeley, Dartmouth, and Princeton—is an unprecedented step, and reflects a wider federal effort to reform higher education policy on rape. The Obama Administration recently announced the creation of a task force charged with finding ways to combat sexual assault on college campuses, a move that comes just as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, which puts new reporting and prevention requirements on schools, goes into effect.

A challenge to the SaVE Act has also brought UVA into the national spotlight: A former University student who claims the school failed to follow its own policies in dealing with her alleged 2011 rape has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing the new law actually undermines her effort to get her own complaint against UVA resolved.

UVA has said it has worked with the DOE to provide requested information, and will continue to do so.

The DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon, said in a press release that the department won’t release any case-specific information or details about the schools, and stressed that the fact that a school is being investigated doesn’t mean it’s violated the law.

“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” she said.