Wittenberg, Ohio State among schools under sex assault scrutiny

Staff and wire reports

Three Ohio schools — Wittenberg, Denison and Ohio State universities — are among 55 across the U.S. facing federal investigation for the way they handle sexual abuse allegations by their students.

For the first time, the Education Department on Thursday revealed its list of colleges under investigation but didn’t include any details of the complaints. The Obama administration has sought to bring more openness to the issue of sexual violence on and around the nation’s campuses.

The government emphasized the list was about investigations of complaints, not judgments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt.

Kevin Evans, Wittenberg Title IX co-coordinator and director of human resources, issued a statement but declined to comment further, saying the university doesn’t comment on pending investigations.

“Wittenberg is deeply committed to fostering a learning environment that is safe, healthy, and inclusive and that supports the development of every student’s potential. We are confident that the investigation will conclude that Wittenberg’s policies and procedures are in full compliance with Title IX, and that we have fully cooperated with (the Office for Civil Rights),” the statement says.

No details were released on what the federal investigation is looking into at the Springfield college.

Wittenberg reported 10 forcible sexual assaults on campus in 2012, compared to 12 at Wright State University, 17 at Miami University and 21 at Ohio State University.

Last month Wittenberg student Belule A. Ayele, 21, was found not guilty by reason of insanity after he was first accused of attempted rape in connection with a January incident in a dorm.

Dylan Richard George, a Wittenberg junior from Columbus, said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by the federal investigation.

Last year the school held a special convocation and instituted several programs to address sexual assault after a high number were reported on campus, he said. Since then, George said the problem seems to have declined.

“You come to the university and you want to be safe … At a small, private, liberal arts school, you wouldn’t expect something like that to be an issue,” he said.

A spokesman for Ohio State said the education department began a review of the school’s procedures in 2010, but that the university is not under investigation for any complaints related to sexual assault or harassment.

“Throughout that process, which is now winding down, OCR has consistently told us that Ohio State has impressive protocols and resources for combating sexual harassment, that no major concerns or findings have been identified, and that our protocols could serve as a model for other schools around the country,” Ohio State spokesman Gary Lewis said in an email.

Schools on the list, for the most part, were unwilling to talk about specific incidents but said they have been working with the federal department to be more responsive to student complaints.

The college investigations are done under Title IX of a U.S. law, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees girls and women equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions’ handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.

The agency previously would confirm such Title IX investigations when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.

Duncan said there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that transparency is important.

“No one probably loves to have their name on that list,” Duncan said during a White House briefing. “But we’ll investigate; we’ll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we’ll be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.”

The department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn’t comply with the law, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.

While being on the list might be difficult for schools, Duncan said, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.

“In terms of what’s morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that,” Duncan said.

The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. President Barack Obama has appointed a task force of Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.

The task force’s report, released just two days earlier, announced the creation of a website, notalone.gov, offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims’ advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campuses.

The department publicized guidance on Title IX’s sexual assault provisions in 2011, and complaints by students have since increased. Complaints, however, don’t always lead to an investigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this article

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