By Paige Leskin
WASHINGTON — Nearly two years have passed with no resolution of a complaint 22-year-old Olivia Ortiz filed with the Department of Education about how the University of Chicago handled her sexual assault report.
When Ortiz reported her assault to UChicago in 2012, she said the school tried to handle the case with informal mediation — a process not prescribed under the federal statute Title IX — instead of opening up a formal investigation. In the university’s attempt to resolve the matter, Ortiz was forced to sit down face-to-face with the man who allegedly attacked her and try to “try to talk it out, like if you had roommate troubles,” she said.
The school failed to give Ortiz the support she needed, instead “delegitimizing” her experience, she said in a phone interview. Ortiz took a leave from school following the assault and now lives at home in Arizona. She said she is still a year away from graduating with her degree.
The Department of Education’ Office for Civil Rights accepted her individual complaint in June 2013, then opened a campus-wide investigation in January 2014 that examined all of UChicago’s response process to sexual assaults. The university said in a statement that it was making “every effort to comply with” the investigation and ensure it was not being discriminatory under Title IX.
Still, Ortiz said, nothing in her complaint with the OCR in Washington has been resolved.
The long wait process is exacerbated by understaffing in the civil rights office, an issue the White House is trying to address in its proposed federal budget for the 2016 fiscal year.
President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion budget for the year beginning Oct. 1 consists of almost $40 million aimed at addressing sexual assault on college campuses. The money, if approved, would be spread across government agencies that could provide resources and programming for schools nationwide.
Included is the proposed budget is the Department of Education’s request is $30.7 million, which would be used to hire 200 more full-time employees in the OCR. These new hires would join existing staff in the civil rights office in investigating sexual violence, as well as other discrimination complaints, on college campuses.
The expansion of the office would “allow for a better ratio of cases per staff, which will ensure more robust monitoring efforts and reduce the time needed to resolve cases,” according the DoE’s budget proposal.
The OCR suffers from staff shortages and an increased workload. The result: a backlog of complaints about Title IX violations that the government has failed to resolve.
“While they’ve seen a large increase in complaints, they actually have less staffing than they used to have to handle the complaints,” said Alyssa Peterson, a coordinator for Know Your IX, a national grassroots campaign run by students and survivors looking to end sexual violence on campuses. “So what’s essentially happening is that people are kind of getting stuck in the system, there isn’t enough manpower to review every case in a timely manner.”
This situation leaves academic institutions without additional support to deal with sexual violence complaints, said Anne Hedgepeth, a campus sexual assault expert with the American Association of University Women.
“These additional resources are a terrific step in ensuring that as more survivors come out of the shadows to report these crimes, schools and law enforcement have the tools they need to help empower students and bring perpetrators to justice,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement endorsing the budget request.
Obama’s proposed budget also looks to the Department of Justice to address sexual assault. An increase of $14 million for the DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women would go toward providing three-year grants to universities. Grants in the 2013 fiscal year totaled more than $7 million and subsidized 38 projects on campuses nationwide.
The additional $14 million would bring funding for the grants program up to $26 million. The aim of the grants is to help campuses better respond to reports of sexual assault and provide more education and prevention services, said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center, a national, nonprofit campus security advocacy group.
Although federal money won’t necessarily change the culture of an institution, Kiss said it can help encourage colleges to create appropriate sexual assault policies and comply with them.
Yet Ortiz, who filed the complaint, said UChicago already has the appropriate resources to address sexual assault, but they have not been properly used. The university is among dozens of colleges currently under investigation by the Department of Education for possibly violating federal law in its handling of sexual assault reports. As of March 4, more than 100 schools were on the list.
Such campuses may see the White House’s request to allocate funding dealing with campus sexual assault as a call for action to change what they’re doing, Hedgepeth, the AAUW expert, said in a phone interview. Although the government has clearly outlined compliance measures for universities, Hedgepeth said schools need to “step up to the plate” by establishing clear processes and enforcing the guidelines.
“They should’ve been doing it long before now and so I hope that’s the message they’ve been hearing,” she said
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are not waiting for Obama’s budget to be approved before demanding changes in how universities respond to complaints. A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill late last month that would penalize colleges that do not properly handle sexual assault cases.
Under the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, as the bill is called, schools could be severely punished for not complying with updated federal statutes. This includes Title IX and the Clery Act, which requires schools to file annual crime reports and affords specific rights to victims of sexual assault.
The White House has also taken part in demanding that schools carry out effective plans addressing sexual assault complaints. The Obama administration established a task force early last year which has since launched the site notalone.gov to help students and administrators navigate sexual assault processes on campuses.
“They’ve really crowdsourced information from experts across the country and synthesized it into one document,” the Clery Center director, Kiss, said. “That has really provided a lot of guidance and information for college and university administrators when it comes to responding and preventing sexual assault on campus.”
But, as Ortiz said, schools still have a long way to go. She said UChicago ignored her voice as the survivor and failed to tell her about her rights during the sexual assault reporting process, she said.
After the OCR opened an investigation at UChicago in January 2014, the school implemented in July a series of policy changes. These included forming a disciplinary committee to handle sexual assault complaints and creating an administrative position that would investigate alleged violations of Title IX and advise the school officials on how to proceed.
In Congress, Republicans and Democrats will hotly debate and amend the Obama budget, working toward an agreement to keep the government from running out of money. Majority GOP leadership will likely look to limit Obama’s budget and cut government spending. But cuts could, in the end, “hurt survivors across the board,” said Peterson of Know Your IX.
“You’d have a similar situation to now … people have more confidence in the system, they’re filing more complaints, there are increased people coming forward,” she said. “I think it really weakens the integrity of the system if the government isn’t receiving the funding it needs.”