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Campuses Under Federal Review Over Sexual Assault Investigations

Texas A&M, the University of Houston and Trinity University are all under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for how they have handled allegations of sexual violence. But at A&M, the case is unusual.

Texas A&M University, College Station.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened three investigations this year into Texas universities — Texas A&M University, the University of Houston and Trinity University — over how they handled allegations of sexual violence on their campuses, documents obtained by The Texas Tribune show.

Such federal inquiries have generally been spurred by accusations that universities didn’t do enough to punish students accused of rape or harassment.

But at least one of the Texas campuses currently under review — Texas A&M — is being investigated for the opposite: a claim that administrators went too far when they suspended a male student accused of assaulting a female classmate.

That focus surprised officials at A&M, a university that has been praised by student groups and even NASA for its work to curb sexual violence on campus. But university President Michael K. Young said in an interview that he has no objection to the federal government reviewing the university’s policies. 

“We certainly believe we do the right thing and try to do the right thing,” he said. “If they find things that we can improve, we will try to do that.” 

The reasons for the inquiries at the University of Houston and Trinity remain unclear; the federal agency would not comment on any of the Texas cases other than to confirm that they exist.

The schools also declined to discuss specifics. The University of Houston said in a statement that it hadn't received any details about its case but that it would fully cooperate with the review. Trinity, meanwhile, said it is actively contesting the complaint filed against the university. 

"The university believes that it followed all proper procedures related to this case," said spokeswoman Sharon Jones Schweitzer.

But the Tribune learned some specifics of the Texas A&M investigation through a trove of documents released by the university under the state’s open records law.

The Department of Education has been investigating A&M since March over the university’s response to a 2014 sexual encounter involving two graduate students at an off-campus apartment. Soon after the incident, a female student told campus officials that a male student had groped her and forced her to perform oral sex on him after they went to dinner together, documents show. 

The male student denied abusing the female student; a police investigation resulted in no criminal charges. But after a university disciplinary hearing, the male student was suspended for seven months. He complained to the school — and later to the Department of Education — that A&M’s system for investigating allegations of sexual violence was “flawed” and that he was penalized based on “lies.” 

Those kinds of complaints from male students are increasingly common at universities, said Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law who specializes in sexual violence. Many men who have been suspended or kicked out of school over accusations of rape have sued their universities over claims of gender discrimination, she said. 

“It’s not rare for a man to claim discrimination,” Murphy said. “It’s not rare for them to say that they want some kind of redress because they did not feel they were treated fairly.”

But the Department of Education isn’t supposed to investigate just because a student thinks he’s been unfairly kicked off campus, Murphy said. It’s supposed to intervene to see if a student suffered from a discriminatory learning environment or if a university’s processes are unfair to a particular gender or ethnicity. 

In a request for information sent to the university in April, the federal agency asked A&M to respond to allegations that it showed bias against men during its disciplinary proceedings. A&M responded by saying its decision to suspend the male student was “based on careful consideration of the testimony of the parties and relevant witnesses, and a review of written evidence,” documents show.

Less than a month later, the Department of Education widened the scope of its investigation to review more than just that student’s case. Now, the department is conducting “an examination of how sexual harassment/violence complaints are handled at [Texas A&M University], including an examination of the grievance procedures to handle complaints of sexual harassment,” according to an investigator’s e-mail.

A&M declined to comment on the details of the investigation. But Young, who wasn’t the A&M president at the time of the 2014 case, said it’s difficult to make everyone happy when a school investigates sexual assault. Students involved in the disciplinary process often complain of unfairness: The victim wants more punishment; the accused feels his or her side of the story was ignored. And universities aren’t law enforcement agencies, he added, so they don’t have subpoena power, forensic evidence or trained prosecutors to aid the investigation.

“I don’t think we should delude anybody into thinking this is easy,” he said.

The Department of Education investigations into Trinity and the University of Houston are just getting underway; the Trinity case began on July 31, and the Houston inquiry opened Oct. 27. And two older Texas cases are still open, one at Cisco College east of Abilene and the other at the University of Texas–Pan American. UT-Pan American has been absorbed by the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley since that investigation began.

The department has focused on campus rape as a civil rights issue since 2011, when the Obama administration directed universities to conduct independent investigations of alleged sexual assaults among students, regardless of whether law enforcement was involved.

If the universities don’t, they risk violating Title IX, the federal statute that requires schools to provide equal education opportunities to both men and women. Students must feel safe from harassment and sexual violence to have equal opportunities, the Obama administration has argued, so universities must aggressively investigate allegations.

Under federal guidelines, universities don’t have to meet the same “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold as a judge or jury in order to punish a student. Administrators must only believe that it’s "more likely than not" that a student committed sexual violence to take action against them.

And the education department has increasingly been willing to hold universities’ feet to the fire. In 2014, the department confirmed it was investigating 55 schools. This year, that number has grown to 146.

In the worst-case scenario, the department can cut off federal funding for universities that don’t play by the rules — a potentially crippling move. But it hasn’t gone that far in previous cases. Instead, it usually enters into agreements with universities to reform their policies before the investigations wrap up. 

“It is just their habit to be coercive and not punitive,” said Murphy, the law professor, “to persuade schools to do the right thing.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The University of Houston was a corporate sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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