College administrators learning to be sexual misconduct detectives

Butte College in Oroville, Calif., is one of 55 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations. (David Butow / Redux Pictures / May 13, 2014)

Butte College administrator Al Renville was never trained as a police investigator, but that's close to the job he found himself in when two students had a sexual encounter off campus that led one to file a complaint with the school.

Renville said his inquiry took at least 200 hours, cost $100,000 and awkwardly bumped up against a parallel police investigation.

And because the accuser appealed the outcome to the federal government, the small college in the Sierra Nevada foothills suddenly found itself in the national spotlight, named as one of 55 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

"What's frustrating for college administrators is that we are not a police entity. We have no subpoena power, no way to compel testimony, no forensics ability," Renville said. "But we are responsible for investigating these cases and ultimately to make recommendations."

As the federal government launches an unprecedented campaign against campus sexual assault, colleges and universities are struggling to meet a raft of new requirements to prevent the misconduct and handle it when it occurs.

Many administrators worry about tackling cases they are not trained to undertake. And they are concerned about being placed in investigatory roles without law enforcement tools or training.

In the last three years, the education department has launched more investigations, released more guidelines, received more complaints and issued more fines against universities for faulty reporting of sexual misconduct and harassment than ever before.

Officials further stepped up the campaign with the April 29 release of a White House task force report on how to deal with the problem, a 53-page document providing specific guidelines and, a few days later, the first-ever naming of campuses under investigation.

Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, which has worked on this issue for four decades, welcomed the focus on the issue by the Obama administration, colleges, policymakers and student activists.

"This coming together," she said, "could be a game-changer."

Kevin Kruger, president of the NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said, however, that these cases are overwhelming some school officials.

"Campus life administrators would rather not be in the business of adjudicating sexual assault cases because they're so complex," he added.

The cases often involve heavy drinking, and are compounded by conflicting accounts and no independent witnesses. Moreover, in a 2011 letter outlining legal obligations under Title IX, the Education Department's civil rights office required schools to investigate incidents off-campus as well as on.

That 1972 law prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds. While it initially was designed primarily to address bias in collegiate sports, it's also used to fight sexual violence and harassment on the grounds that such acts deprive the victim of an equal education. The misconduct could include a pattern of unwanted sexual actions, such as sexting or hugs, as well as such violent crimes as rape.

"It's difficult enough for a trained investigator to do; to put that on a school official is really sticky," said one higher education official who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

Adding to the complexity, officials say, are evolving standards on how to balance the rights of all parties. The 2011 letter, for instance, told campuses they must use a lesser standard of proof, a "preponderance of evidence," instead of the stricter "clear and convincing evidence" that some campuses had been using.

The letter also stated that both parties should be treated equally, prompting questions about how to do that and still give the accused a presumption of innocence.

"The shadow system of campus justice threatens to leave constitutional rights behind and threatens to do more harm than good to students," said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Other challenges include dealing with the blizzard of reporting rules, confidential and anonymous complaints and negotiating with employee unions to impose new training requirements, said Dianne Harrison, Cal State Northridge president.

Her campus has reorganized its process for dealing with such complaints, funneling them to a central office with a specially trained staff. She said it was crucial for university presidents to speak forcefully about the issue and make sure campus administrators carry out the work.