Morgan State under federal investigation for handling of sexual assault case

Students walk a pedestrian bridge at Morgan State in a 2002 file photo.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into Morgan State University's handling of a reported sexual assault, as the number of colleges nationwide facing scrutiny for their response to sexual violence allegations grows.

The investigation into Morgan State was opened June 26, according to a list made public Wednesday that now includes 66 other colleges nationwide. University spokesman Clint Coleman said the investigation involves the alleged sexual assault of a female student Feb. 28, an incident that she reported to the university on March 20.


"We look forward to this investigation, and all we seek is justice," Coleman said. "We of course take all matters involving violence of any type — and especially sexual assaults — very, very seriously here at Morgan."

In May, the Department of Education released for the first time a list of 55 colleges under investigation for their response to sexual assault allegations under the federal Title IX law. The list now contains 67 schools, including Harvard University, Colorado State University and Vanderbilt University, as well as Frostburg State University.


When that list was released, Catherine E. Lhamon the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said it was designed "to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights."

On Wednesday, Harvard said it has created an office to investigate allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault. It will open in September.

"This new, progressive policy — alongside the new, centralized procedures for investigating reports — will significantly enhance Harvard's ability to address these incidents when they occur," said Harvard President Drew Faust.

Under the Title IX gender-equity law, colleges are required to respond to sexual assault claims as they would to other forms of gender discrimination. An Obama administration task force also released guidelines this year clarifying how universities should handle alleged sexual assaults under Title IX and under the Clery Act, which governs how serious crimes should be reported to the campus community and the public. Colleges have been criticized in recent years by advocates and students for their response to such reported crimes.

Coleman said the alleged sexual assault reportedly happened in off-campus student housing and that the alleged assailant, also a Morgan student, is an acquaintance of the woman. Once the university learned of the complaint, officials notified Baltimore police, which began its own investigation, he said. The Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to prosecute the case, after which point the university initiated its own investigation, Coleman said.

Coleman said he did not believe any student discipline had come of Morgan's inquiry into the case but said the university's investigation was continuing. The Education Department does not make public the complaints that trigger its investigations, and it remains unclear what prompted the student to file the complaint.

"We wanted to make sure that this matter was handled appropriately. That's why the university began its own investigation," Coleman said. "Right after [authorities] declined to prosecute, the university immediately began looking into it for possible violations of university policies and procedures."

The Department of Education's investigations have been spurred by complaints from students or other members of the university community about the way alleged sexual assault cases are handled. Frostburg State is the only other college in Maryland with an active investigation into a reported sexual assault.


However, a group of students at the Johns Hopkins University filed a complaint this year with the federal government, alleging Title IX and Clery Act violations, though federal officials have not opened a formal investigation.

The Frostburg State case involves the report of an off-campus sexual assault of a student in 2013. Earlier this year, a former student said she filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights because she believed the university had mishandled the case, including allowing her alleged rapist to remain on campus for months harassing her while the investigation was underway.

Frostburg spokeswoman Liz Medcalf said at the time that the university recognizes sexual assault as a "serious problem" and has mandatory sexual assault prevention training for students. She said an advisory council was developing recommendations for improvements.

In the Hopkins case, a Towson University student alleged she was gang-raped at a party at a Hopkins fraternity in 2013, and the Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to prosecute the case after police investigated. A group of students alleged the university should have disclosed the incident under the Clery Act and argued that officials were not taking reported rapes seriously.

"The decision not to notify the university community in that case was made after considering relevant facts and legal requirements, and in consultation with the Baltimore police department, which was leading the investigation," Hopkins officials said in statement at the time. "The Johns Hopkins University is deeply committed to the safety and welfare of our community and to ensuring a safe environment for learning and scholarship."

In 2011, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights offered guidelines on how universities should respond to rape cases and published more guidance this year. The instructions are lengthy, and include requirements that universities not wait until a law enforcement investigation is complete before starting their own inquiries.


Newer requirements include sexual misconduct training for students, publicly disclosing incidents of domestic violence and stalking on campus, and ensuring disciplinary proceedings are run by officials who have been trained to deal with sexual misconduct.

Coleman said Morgan State did not report the alleged sexual assault to the campus community under the Clery Act's "timely warning" requirement, which obligates universities to warn the community within 90 days about serious or ongoing threats to public safety. Coleman said campus police did not believe there was on ongoing threat to campus safety "due to the length of time between the assault and the time it was reported," and because the woman and her alleged attacker knew each other.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze and Reuters contributed to this article.