Federal sexual assault probe focuses on 55 schools, including WSU

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Washington State University is one of 55 colleges facing a Title IX investigation over its handling of sexual-abuse complaints, the U.S. Education Department said Thursday.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights notified the university in January 2013 about a complaint alleging WSU failed to adequately respond to sexual-harassment reports, including incidents of sexual assault.

Details of the complaint were not available.

The department’s assistant secretary for civil rights said a school’s appearance on the list does not mean it has violated the law, but that an investigation is ongoing.

The Pullman-based university reiterated that in a statement, saying there has been no finding of wrongdoing on its part.

WSU officials said they contacted the civil-rights office after receiving the complaint and asked to participate in the agency’s “voluntary resolution” process, meaning the university would work with the agency to improve improvements in policies and practices.

Since that time, WSU has been cooperating with the OCR to provide information, the school said.

In February, agency representatives visited the campus, conducting sessions with student focus groups, interviews with employees and open forums for students to meet with representatives.

“WSU takes its Title IX obligations very seriously and does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct,” the school said.

Title IX prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. The same law guarantees girls equal access to sports, regulates how institutions handle sexual violence and is being used increasingly by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.

The names of the 55 schools were released nationally, two days after a White House task force promised greater transparency on sexual assault in higher education. Going forward, the Education Department said it will make an updated list of schools facing such an investigation available upon request.

The University of Idaho in Moscow was also named.

According to federal data, 10 forcible sex offenses were reported to federal officials at the WSU-Pullman campus in 2012, 17 in 2011 and seven in 2010. The number includes sex offenses that occurred in off-campus buildings.

The University of Washington is not being investigated, but the same database shows 13 forcible sex offenses on the UW’s Seattle campus in 2012, 31 in 2011 and seven in 2010.

It’s not the first time WSU has been investigated by federal officials on matters of sexual assaults.

In 2011, WSU was found to have violated another federal campus-crime law, the Clery Act, for not properly reporting two sexual assaults that occurred in 2007. For those violations, WSU was fined $82,500. The school appealed the fine, and it was reduced to $15,000.

In the ruling that led to the reduction, a judge found no evidence of fraudulent intent by anyone associated with the incorrect crime reports and noted the same mistakes were not likely to happen again, given improvements made by WSU’s new police chief.

The Clery Act requires colleges to report crime statistics on or near their campuses, to develop prevention policies and to ensure victims their basic rights.

Citing research, the White House has said that one in five female students is assaulted. President Obama appointed a task force to review the issue after hearing complaints about the poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.

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

Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine Long contributed to this report.

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