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U.S. Dept. of Ed opens third investigation of University of Maryland's handling of sexual misconduct on campus

The U.S. Department of Education has opened a third investigation into how the University of Maryland, College Park responds to reports of sexual violence on campus.

The department confirmed Wednesday that its Office for Civil Rights initiated an investigation on Dec. 6. Two other investigations were launched earlier this year.

The state’s flagship university is one of nearly 250 institutions across the country currently under investigation for possible violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex.

“We plan to fully comply and assist in the review process,” university spokeswoman Katie Lawson said in a statement. “Our commitment to a campus free of sexual misconduct remains steadfast.”

The Education Department is also looking into the handling of sexual misconduct cases by other Maryland colleges, including the Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, Mount Saint Mary’s University, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Colleges across the country are grappling with how to handle complaints of sexual misconduct properly. The nonprofit National Sexual Violence Resource Center has reported that one in five female students is sexually assaulted at college.

The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era guidelines on how universities should respond to reports of sexual assault under Title IX. New interim guidelines issued by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos allow schools to use a higher standard of evidence when considering sexual misconduct cases.

Students at College Park have been pushing the university for years to devote more resources and attention to combat sexual violence on campus. The university’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct has struggled to find its footing since it was established in 2014.

A record number of students — four — were expelled for sexual misconduct during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the most recent report available from the university’s Title IX office. But the office typically took twice as long as the recommended 60 business days to resolve complaints, the report states.

The university garnered national attention last year when the Student Government Association proposed a $34 mandatory student fee to bolster funding for the Title IX office. The SGA, which argued that the office was understaffed and underfunded, eventually withdrew its fee proposal and the university approved funding to create additional staff positions within the office.

University president Wallace Loh approved a series of recommendations last spring from a task force that he convened in October 2016. The university is in the process of implementing these recommendations, which include in-person training in sexual assault prevention for all students and the creation of a centralized website to connect students with campus resources.

“To create a campus that is free from all forms of sexual misconduct is an ambitious and essential undertaking that is in the interest, and is the responsibility, of every member of our University community,” Loh said in May.

But student activists continue to push for more action, funding and transparency. Senior Cristina Johnson, president of Preventing Sexual Assault, a student group that spreads awareness about what Johnson calls an “epidemic” on campus, said the newest investigation is an indication that the university has to do more.

“They’ve been constantly saying that it’s going to get better, but to me, this is another way of showing that we need to keep putting pressure on the administration,” Johnson said. “We need to make this a priority.”

The Education Department opened its first investigation at the College Park campus on Jan. 11, and its second on March 31. Neither of those cases has been resolved.

Other Maryland universities have been under investigation for years. Johns Hopkins’ case stretches back to 2014. The four open cases at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland all date from 2015.

It took an average of 1,469 days — more than four years — to complete Title IX investigations nationally in 2014, the department reported.

SGA president A.J. Pruitt, who was behind the student fee proposal, said he believes the university has made progress since those first two cases began.

“What I’d really like to see is that, instead of new investigations, we actually close some of the ongoing investigations,” he said. “What are the concrete things we can do to ensure we’re meeting federal policies and doing everything we should do around sexual misconduct?”

trichman@baltsun.com

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