The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation into the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s compliance with federal Title IX rules barring gender discrimination.
University officials confirmed the investigation this week and said the school was notified about it in November 2020. The probe is “still underway,” UMBC’s general counsel said in an emailed statement to The Baltimore Sun, though no timeline for findings has been provided.
A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency declined to comment.
UMBC notified students of the investigation in an email this April, saying the Justice Department‘s Civil Rights Division was looking into the school’s “response to complaints of sexual harassment and its Title IX compliance.”
While the scope of the investigation is unclear, UMBC has faced scrutiny over its handling of sexual assaults in recent years. A 2018 lawsuit against the university and other Baltimore County authorities alleged systemic indifference to crimes of sexual violence, and led to a series of reforms of the school’s Title IX practices.
It also was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016, following an attorney’s complaint alleging UMBC had mishandled a student’s case.
The university’s April email said the university has cooperated and offered open office hours over three days that month for students to meet with investigators about “their experiences.”
“We are certainly working with them and cooperating with them to make sure that they have what they need as it relates to the investigation,” said Candace Dodson-Reed, chief of staff to the university president, in an interview this week.
Dodson-Reed also serves as executive director of the school’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, which handles Title IX investigations into sexual misconduct.
The 2018 lawsuit, joined by five current or former female students at UMBC who said they were sexually assaulted, argued that the women were treated with “indifference and disrespect,” were intimidated by police and were discouraged from reporting.
A judge has since thrown out most claims in the suit, including all against UMBC, but the allegations prompted outcry on UMBC’s campus in 2018, including a march to the administration building where students confronted the university president, a series of demands and a student-led town hall.
That, in turn, led to three 2019 reports containing more than 100 recommendations from outside consultants, a student task force, and a group of faculty and staff members. The office has implemented some of the recommendations and is working on others.
Dodson-Reed said UMBC has “grown as a university” since 2018, providing additional resources for an “extra level of care” for students, faculty and staff.
“It’s my goal to try to be the model,” Dodson-Reed said. “So, what else do we need to do to be the best that we can in this very difficult work?”
“Do I think we’ve made progress? Certainly,” she added. “But, like anything else, I would love for us to continue to make progress, continue to check in with the community and make sure that we’re providing a level of care for our students, faculty, staff and alums … that is the best we can possibly do in this space.”
The university’s longtime president, Freeman Hrabowski III, announced last August that he would step down in 2022 after three decades leading the school. His successor, Valerie Sheares Ashby, started Monday.
Dodson-Reed said Tuesday that the new president is aware of the investigation and has no plans to change the school’s cooperation.
“I don’t want to speak for her,” she said, “but I know she cares greatly about these issues.”
What does a Department of Justice investigation into a university mean?
The university has largely declined to comment on specifics of the investigation.
The school’s general counsel, David Gleason, said Justice Department investigators had provided the university with requests for information and follow-up requests for interviews. He said the school had “worked cooperatively together with DOJ throughout this process.”
But he said he didn’t expect Justice Department officials to provide the school with a sense of how the UMBC investigation might relate to any other investigations into universities.
The U.S. Department of Education has closed two Title IX investigations into UMBC opened in 2016, one for “insufficient evidence” and the other because the complainant had filed with either a court or another civil rights enforcement agency, an agency spokesperson said by email.
Both federal agencies have divisions or offices dedicated to civil rights investigations. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division includes an Educational Opportunities Section that can enforce civil rights laws around discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, language, sex, religion and disability, according to its website.
With regard to sex-based discrimination, the unit’s work includes addressing sexual harassment, harassment related to gender presentation and unequal athletic participation opportunities, its website said.
A letter from DOJ officials following a recently closed investigation into San Jose State University’s Title IX compliance noted sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual touching, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct. The department’s investigators found the school hadn’t responded adequately to reports of sexual harassment, including sexual assault by an athletic trainer, despite female athletes’ reports of unwanted touching. It also identified retaliation against two employees.
A $1.6 million settlement agreement reached last year also required the California school to improve its process for responding to sexual harassment complaints, bolster its Title IX office, publicize protocols and provide remedies to those who were sexually harassed by the trainer.
What has UMBC done since 2018?
It launched an anonymous reporting form for the Office of Equity and Inclusion that has averaged dozens of reports per month since its launch in February 2020.
And it has moved the office handling Title IX issues so it no longer falls under the purview of the general counsel’s office, which critics had called a conflict of interest.
Other steps are still in the works.
Students and faculty have called for additional services for sexual assault survivors, ideally through a full-time advocate who could help individuals navigate systems and the university’s investigatory process.
Dodson-Reed said officials are discussing that recommendation, including following federal Title IX regulations that have changed under different presidential administrations.
And, while UMBC’s Office of Equity and Inclusion has publicly released one report about its work, the case statistics provided didn’t go into specifics that were recommended by outside consultants the university hired to assess its work around campus sexual misconduct. The consultants recommended the university make data public, including the type of report — sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence, stalking, interpersonal violence, etc. — and the nature of the cases’ resolution, including the number in which the accused was found to be in violation of policy.
The 2020 report said the office handled 427 cases that year, including 236 for Title IX or sexual misconduct and 191 into discrimination or bias. Of those 427, 361 were “closed.”
The Morning Sun
No information for 2021 is publicly available.
The office is led by an acting director, Morgan Thomas, who previously served as UMBC’s assistant general counsel, and who reports to Dodson-Reed, who in turn reports to the university president.
The consultants had warned against housing Title IX investigations under the general counsel, as it adds to a perception the university “only cares about protecting itself from legal risk” and “contributes to the perception that the institution ‘speaks out of both sides of its mouth,’ on the one hand stating that it cares for individuals but appearing to hide behind ‘legalistic language’ and policy language.”
The office’s team also includes a civil rights and Title IX investigator and a Title IX coordinator, according to its website. Dodson-Reed said this week that the office was in the process of hiring a case and training manager, and had secured funding for an additional full-time employee.
Dodson-Reed said she remembered the campus furor in 2018 over sexual misconduct, which occurred shortly after she dropped her own daughter off at college for the first time. Listening to people describe their experiences was difficult, she said, and she remembered thinking: “This is not the experience that we want any student, faculty or staff to have at UMBC.”
The campus has made strides in the years since, Dodson-Reed said. While there’s ongoing work to be done, she said, the commitment from faculty and staff on these issues has been “inspiring.”
“This is a community that cares about people, and we want to try to get this as right as possible,” Dodson-Reed said. “It is never going to be perfect because people are complex, but we’re trying to get it as right as we can. And that is a sincere commitment from every level at this university.”