Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass the subject of country’s longest running Title IX investigation on record

Collegian File Photo
(Collegian File Photo)

The average Title IX investigation takes about a year and a half, according to Saundra K. Shuster, partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management who specializes in Title IX compliance.

While these investigation periods can vary, the University of Massachusetts has the longest-running Title IX investigation on record, initially opened on June 30, 2011.

The investigation at UMass is one of sexual violence, according to records from the U.S. Department of Education, while another sexual violence investigation was opened on Sept. 24, 2015.

As part of its investigatory process, the department’s Office for Civil Rights examines university culture and reviews responses to complaints of sexual violence over a period of years, not just the facts related to the individual complaint, according to a statement from the Office for Civil Rights.

OCR has jurisdiction over a complaint under Title IX if the complaint alleges, or OCR can infer, an allegation of discrimination based on sex – including any form of sexual assault – by an institution receiving federal financial assistance, according to the office’s Case Processing Manual.

Schuster consulted with the UMass system regarding Title IX compliance for about 10 months, from 2014 to June 2015.

“I was basically auditing all the schools in the system,” said Shuster, adding she reviewed policies and audited procedures, “tweak(ing) a little here and there.”

“(University officials) wanted to make sure they were representing best practices within the entire UMass system,” she said. “They have been extremely responsive.”

Although Schuster said she doesn’t know what caused the long investigation of UMass, Schuster said OCR’s Boston Office was most likely overwhelmed by investigations, due to the number of universities in the area.

Along with increased complaints, the number of staff at OCR today is almost 15 percent below the number from 10 years ago, according to OCR’s report to the president and secretary of education for FY 2013-2014.

In a 2014 press release sent out after UMass’ inclusion on a list of universities under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, the University said that the 2011 investigation was initiated via a “proactive compliance review” and that UMass was not the subject of a Title IX complaint.

According to a statement from the Chancellor’s office emailed to the campus community on Sept. 22, 2011, the campus was chosen for the review under Title IX by the Boston OCR in part because of its stature as the largest public university in New England, and as a public flagship university.

The Department of Education no longer publicly identifies whether investigations were initiated through a complaint or a compliance review, said a Department of Education spokesperson in an email. The department does not allow spokespeople to be quoted by name.

“We found that there was confusion over which was more important – a complaint-driven probe or a compliance review,” the spokesperson said. “They’re both important.”

UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said in an email that “the case opened on Sept. 24, 2015 by the Office for Civil Rights involves a former student accused of violating the Code of Student Conduct who has filed a complaint alleging that the process leading to a sanction imposed by the University was discriminatory.”

As of March 9, 2016, there are 217 sexual violence investigations at 173 postsecondary institutions, including 15 in Massachusetts.

Title IX coordinator Debora D. Ferreira said in an email that the second investigation is based on a complaint. The first investigation was a compliance review, she said.

Compliance reviews are not random audits of schools; rather, schools are selected based on various sources of information, including statistical data, news reports and information from students, parents, community organizations and advocacy groups, the Department of Education spokesman said in an email.

“Reviews are initiated based on a considered and targeted decision that investigation is necessary in order to remedy possible violations of rights,” he said.

The compliance review regulations provide OCR with broad discretion to determine the issues for investigation and the number and frequency of the investigations, according to the OCR manual.

Both compliance reviews and complaint-driven investigations can include narrower allegations pertaining to individuals, as well as issues related to school policies and practices that impact the student body, school or school system as a whole, according to a statement from OCR.

Neither a compliance review nor a complaint-driven investigation by itself indicates that the school is violating or has violated any federal law, according to the statement.

Compliance reviews and complaint-driven investigations are investigated the same way.

Typically, investigations involve reviewing large amounts of documents. Investigations also look at policies and non-discrimination statements, Schuster said.

Since 2011’s “Dear Colleague” letter was released by the Office for Civil Rights, there has been a greater awareness of remedies available to victims, including those under Title IX, Schuster said.

The letter was released to remind schools of the existence of Title IX and their accountability if they did not meet their obligations under the law, Schuster said.

She added that schools must submit to Title IX investigations and that they are not voluntary.

OCR can cut funding to a university for failure to comply with its orders and refer cases to the Department of Justice when a school refuses to initiate compliance efforts, she said.

“It’s never a lawsuit that you want your name attached to,” Schuster said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at [email protected].

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    MaddieApr 7, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    Here is the UMass Amherst Title IX website for more information specific to our university, including supportive resources for those who may want and/or need it: