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Students file four new sexual assault complaints

Students at four schools are filing complaints with the Department of Education over allegedly botched sexual assault cases and retaliation against victims.
Students walk on campus at The University of California, Santa Barbara, April 2, 2014.
Students walk on campus at The University of California, Santa Barbara, April 2, 2014.

Newly-filed federal complaints allege that four more colleges or universities have mishandled sexual assault cases and retaliated against victims, including one case where a student found responsible for rape was given a $25 fine.

The complaints -- against the University of Michigan, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of Toledo, and Valparaiso University Law School -- are being filed with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Wednesday. They list multiple alleged violations of federal laws, including Title IX, the 1972 gender equity statute; Title II, an anti-disability discrimination law; and the Clery Act, a campus crime and safety law.

A University of Toledo spokesman told msnbc in an email that the school "fully investigates all reports of sexual misconduct and offers survivors resources on campus, including advocates in the Counseling Center, and through strong community partners such as the YWCA." He also said that the $25 administrative fee is levied against all students found guilty of violating the Student Code of Conduct.

If the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights opens investigations, the four schools face the possibility of losing all federal funding if OCR finds they are not in compliance with Title IX. This has never happened before.

Sarah Miller*, a 23-year-old former University of Toledo student, decided to file an official complaint, but when her assailant was found responsible of assault by the school's disciplinary hearing process, he was barely punished.

While placed on disciplinary probation, he was allowed to remain on campus, ordered to take sexual assault education classes and given a $25 fine. Miller ultimately transferred to the University of Cincinnati to finish her degree.

The university, she told msnbc, "basically give freshmen a skit talking about rape and sexual assault, but that’s about it. UT doesn’t have a lot of sexual assault programming,” she said. “I don’t feel like they did a very good job with assisting students in knowing what [rape] is, how to deal with it. I had to do a lot of Googling on their website to find out what they would do.”

It took Miller seven months to go to school officials. "Because it was acquaintance rape, I didn’t know to call it rape because we’d been friends for three years," she said. After a code of conduct hearing -- where she was once asked to leave the room because she was considered a witness to her own rape, and her assailant admitted she had not consented to sex -- her perpetrator was given the $25 fine, probation, and 10 hours of sexual assault education. When Miller and her perpetrator appealed, he was suspended for a year, but that was reversed after he was allowed to appeal one more time, a luxury Miller was not given. "From documentation they gave me, it said [the university's] decision was final. Why are you re-reviewing yourself? I felt like they should know the process at their own university."

At one point in the hearing process, when it became clear her attacker would likely not have to leave school, Miller asked, "How can you suspend someone for plagiarism but not suspend them for violating someone’s body?"

She added, "I feel like the university is just as guilty as the rapist. It needs to be held accountable and rapists need to be held accountable."

Complaints from students and former students across the country have spiked since the U.S. Department of Education declared in 2011 that sexual assault and harassment are federally recognized forms of discrimination. Responses to the crisis at colleges and universities have varied widely, from adding more rape awareness and prevention education programs for incoming students to overhauling administrative hearing procedures. But, activists say, more schools are going to have to face serious scrutiny if anything is going to really change.

That scrutiny may come in the next several weeks, as schools enter "the red zone" -- the period between September and Thanksgiving when new students are most likely to be assaulted. Students new to college and new to campus are still unfamiliar with their surroundings, leaving a small window for schools to employ rape prevention programming. A National Institute of Justice study suggests that as many as one in five women will face sexual assault while she is in college.

Attention to the issue has intensified since this spring, when a White House task force issued a series of recommendations aimed at improving school policies and announced that 55 schools were already under investigation for possible violations of Title IX. That number has since grown to 76 colleges and universities in more than 30 states.

The University of Michigan was already on that list. But according to the new complaint, the university retaliated against Taylor*, a resident adviser at university dorm for reporting rape threats from a fellow student. Two days after scheduling a meeting to discuss the school’s apparent mishandling of the first report, the school fired Taylor as an RA. 

“At first, I was only concerned about the person who was threatening me, but now I’m concerned about university employees. At this point, if something happened, I wouldn’t report it. If I didn’t report it, I would have a job and I wouldn’t be in fear of university employees.," Taylor told msnbc.

Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, told msnbc, "We have not yet received notice of a complaint from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education so there is nothing for us to say at this time."

Myra Crimmel, one of six complainants against UC-Santa Barbara, said that in September 2013, only weeks into her senior year, she was drugged and raped by two men, one of whom was a fellow student. When she asked the university to help her avoid seeing that assailant in classes, Crimmel said the school pressured her to formally report her rape, but that administrators soon stopped responding to her questions after she reported and the school was conducting its investigation. 

“I had to email constantly,” Crimmel told msnbc. “Many times they would never respond. I even felt pushy always asking for information.”

A spokesman from UCSB said that the university had not received official notification of a complaint yet, but that, “While federal and state law prohibits us from discussing specific cases, the university takes reports by our students of sexual assault extremely seriously. We offer numerous counseling, support and advocacy resources for survivors, and we have a comprehensive adjudication process.We review our procedures regularly to ensure that we are using best practices and are in alignment with all University of California, state and federal requirements.”

Her assailant left school while Crimmel finished her time at the University, but no information about what happened nor any punishment will be listed on his school records, and he is free to return to campus now that she has graduated. The new complaint, Crimmel said, is a way “to expose the reality of been a survivor on this campus, and I want other survivors to be respected, and listened to by the administration who failed to protect them.”

Valparaiso University cited "student confidentiality" and said it could not comment on any specific complaint. According to a spokeswoman, "Students who commit acts of sexual assault or violence will face serious sanctions, likely suspension or expulsion from the University, and be subject to criminal prosecution."

Legislators are set to take up bills soon in the House and Senate that will increase the range of penalties for schools that don’t comply with Title IX and help gather information about what’s really happening on college campuses. California just passed a bill that requires all colleges that receive state funds to use an “affirmative consent” standard in their policies. The “yes-means-yes” measure is the first of its kind in the country.

While it will take more than just new laws to combat rape culture on campus, advocates say complaints will keep coming as long as there is a disconnect between school policies and practice.

“It’s good for people to keep up the pressure,” Sofie Karasek, a student at Berkeley and a member of End Rape on Campus, told msnbc. “Obviously it’s not good that schools are continuing to violate the law, but if they are, filing complaints and generating attention is how to hold them accountable to the statements they’re making publicly.”

*Some names have been changed.