Olivia Ortiz was elated when the U.S. Department of Education contacted her in June of 2013 to tell her it was opening an investigation into her complaint that the University of Chicago had mishandled her sexual assault case.
A junior at the time, she had run out of options on campus after a dean decided against an investigation and instead recommended an informal mediation between her and a student she said had assaulted her in the spring of her freshman year.
Finally, Ortiz said, she felt someone was on her side.
Two years later, Ortiz is still waiting.
The reason: a burgeoning backlog at the education department that advocates say is leaving victims to languish longer without resolution, and could discourage others from coming forward at all.
“I definitely appreciate the Department of Education taking their time,” said Ortiz, who has since left campus and moved back in with her parents in Arizona, citing anxiety about continuing her studies in an environment where she felt unsafe.
“But for me, I just wanted some immediate relief. I feel like sometimes there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
College students who believe their schools mishandled their allegations of sexual assault have increasingly opted to use the federal gender discrimination statute known as Title IX to press the institutions for stronger action.
Last May, the department made public a list of 59 schools under investigation for Title IX complaints. As of May 27, the agency had 123 open sexual assault cases at 113 schools across the country. Those complaints are not criminal cases, but if a university is found to be in violation of Title IX, it risks losing federal funding, a massive piece of most schools’ budgets.
At the same time, the department has altered its approach to investigating such complaints. Instead of assessing them as isolated cases, the agency now sees each one as an opportunity for a broader assessment of a school’s overall compliance.
Advocates praise the department’s commitment to evaluating the culture of each college under investigation. But the spike in complaints and the broader scope of the responses have swamped the department’s investigators. Groups that support victims worry that the lengthy reviews, which may bring improvements to the universities in question, wind up stranding the people filing the complaints.
The long wait for a resolution also extends the anguish for anyone wrongly accused. And it frustrates schools as they seek vindication of their efforts to make campuses safer.
Even before the department adopted its more comprehensive approach, Title IX investigations could take years. Part of that lengthy timeline has to do with a lack of funding and, more specifically, staffing.
In 2014, the education department received more than 10,000 complaints under Title IX, a broad law that bans gender-based discrimination in federally funded programs. Less than 10 percent of those complaints related to sexual assault, but the department’s Office of Civil Rights had to field all 10,000.
There is no special unit to handle sexual assault complaints despite their sensitive nature, and investigators juggle dozens of cases at once dealing with all aspects of gender discrimination.
Today, the department is opening more sexual assault investigations than it is closing, with some still pending after four years.
In his 2016 budget, President Barack Obama proposed a 31 percent increase for the Office of Civil Rights, which would allow it to add 210 full-time staff members to its roster of 544.
“Do we need more people? Absolutely,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of the Office of Civil Rights, recently told The Associated Press. “My staff are carrying 20-25 cases a person on average at any given time, that’s a very, very burdensome caseload. I’d like to see more people to move these cases, because I think that’s what the scope of civil rights demands.”
When she was appointed in 2013, Lhamon decided that instead of focusing on the specific incident that spurred a particular complaint, investigators should solicit as much information as possible from a school to identify any patterns.
“We are more systemic in the way we evaluate because I think that’s the way to get at civil rights compliance more effectively,” Lhamon said. “Sometimes a complaint says, ‘I went to my school, it didn’t handle it well, I think that’s a Title IX violation.’ We can tell what happened about that complaint, but it’s better to look at the school’s policies, and other case files, to see if what happened to that student is an aberration.”
Some advocates say expanding the scope of investigations has serious ramifications for those waiting for their complaints to be resolved.
“Now, OCR will look at everything, from soup to nuts. That’s a great thing, but it’s terrible for victims,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at Victim Rights Law Center, a nonprofit that offers services to sexual assault victims.
“The problem with OCR right now is that it utterly fails to provide remedies to individual victims. If you can’t provide a remedy for a complaint, you’re going to lose complainants. Now it’s, ‘Thanks for the complaint, we’ll see you in four years while we do a compliance review.’”
Wendy Murphy, an attorney and adjunct professor of sexual violence law, filed a 2010 complaint against Harvard Law School that was closed after the school was found to be in violation of Title IX in December of 2014. She said her clients often graduate before their cases are resolved.
“They could have been correct, that their rights were violated, but because no repair work was done during my clients’ time on campus, there was no effective remedy,” Murphy said. “You can’t fix someone’s hostile educational environment if they’ve graduated by the time you announce there was a violation.”
Emily Kollaritsch, now 21, is a recent graduate of Michigan State University, which has been under investigation since 2011.
Kollaritsch said she was assaulted by a fellow student during her freshman year, and school officials ultimately held him responsible. But the administrative review took 285 days, she said, and the student was not even suspended.
Instead, he was placed on probation and made to write an essay about changing his behavior, and had his on-campus movements restricted, according to a copy of a disciplinary letter that Kollaritsch provided to the AP.
The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Ortiz and Kollaritsch have come forward to help draw attention to the problem.
After the university closed her case, Kollaritsch filed a complaint with the Department of Education in October of 2013. In February of last year, the department opened an investigation.
That’s when school administrators began antagonizing her, Kollaritsch said, by questioning whether her case was serious enough to warrant a Title IX complaint. It got so bad, she said, that she took a semester off and returned with a service dog to help manage her stress.
“Just driving to campus I’d have panic attacks,” Kollaritsch said. “Every day thinking, how am I going to survive this? That shouldn’t be what your college years are about.”
Jason Cody, an MSU spokesman, said there are resources in place for sexual assault victims on campus, and said the administration encourages students to reach out to federal officials if they feel it is necessary.
“We have systems in place to handle these cases, but if someone feels they aren’t getting the support they need, we would support them” going to the Department of Education, Cody said. “There is no retaliation. We support those victims.”
Ortiz, the Chicago student, says she wished federal officials had done more. While she hopes to return to school in the fall, she said her academic career hangs in the balance while she waits for her complaint to be resolved.
Several messages left for the University of Chicago’s Title IX coordinator were not returned.
“I thought this would be a way to hold my school accountable and make it better,” Ortiz said. “But it’s heartbreaking to see my classmates graduate. I’ve had to turn my entire life around for this, move back to my hometown and in with my parents. I didn’t sign up for a several years-long battle.”
JULIET LINDERMAN, Associated Press