Southern Methodist University is one of 55 American colleges and universities under federal investigation regarding its handling of sexual abuse reports under Title IX policies. The Department of Education unveiled its list of open investigations just two days after the White House task force announced its efforts and recommendations to combat sexual assaults on college campuses.
The unprecedented move of transparency revealed investigative information previously kept private or available only by request.
SMU released an official statement Thursday afternoon.
“SMU applauds the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to eradicate sexual violence on college campuses and to provide universities with additional tools to combat sexual assault,” the statement said. “Our goals are the same.
“The matters under review by the Education Department have been investigated by SMU and predate our university task force review of sexual misconduct policies and procedures. The university has been aggressive in putting into proactive wide-ranging new procedures to inform and protect our students, to provide prompt and effective resolution of complaints, and to hold violators accountable while treating all students fairly.”
Student Body President Ramon Trespalacios thinks, “It’s commendable to see the Department of Education working on efforts that affect students on college campuses right now.”
“It is good that leadership in education has the same goals as students who have taken ownership of the issues and are working to better the issue,” Trespalacios said. “I think SMU can be a benchmark to other universities. We will be able to show the nation how we care about students and how things can be done right.”
SMU’s own sexual assault task force was created in September 2012 and made its 41 recommendations to President R. Gerald Turner in May of the following year. All 41 recommendations were accepted. According to SMU’s Health and Safety Information website, “the examination took into account adherence to state and federal laws, especially Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.”
SMU Vice President for Student Affairs Lori White was charged with overseeing the implementation of the task force recommendations.
The announced federal investigations could have been confirmed with the Education Department prior to Thursday’s announcement and several experts said most schools were likely aware of the investigation. However, it’s unlikely most students and campus members were aware of the investigations.
“We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights.
Lhamon explained in a statement that a school’s presence on the list only means the investigation is on-going, and does not mean the school has broken the law.
The task force by the White House — comprised of members of the Cabinet — revealed Tuesday the creation of the website notalone.gov. The site offers resources for sexual abuse victims and an archive of information on past enforcement actions, as well as resources for students who believe themselves to be victims of other sex-based discrimination on their campuses.
The task force also announced an array of recommendations to schools to combat poor treatment of campus rape victims and the secret nature that is often typical of sexual assaults.
Some officials warn that these open investigations could push schools to focus more on handling media attention than to addressing the inciting problem. There is also the risk of compromising victim privacy with the move to
POLITICO reported Lisa Maatz, the American Association of University Women’s top policy adviser, as saying the balance between transparency and confidentiality was delicate.
“There’s always that tension, and we just need both schools and the Department of Education…to be consistent…and to be upfront with students head of time so students know what filing means,” Maatz said.
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities, but is best recognized for its work in sexual violence and athletics.