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Shutdown puts college sexual assault investigations on pause

The government shutdown is preventing the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to work on sexual assault investigations on college campuses.
Carly Mee, a student at Occidental College, center, talks with other students during the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) sexual assault awareness night campout at the college campus in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, April 19, 2013.
Carly Mee, a student at Occidental College, center, talks with other students during the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) sexual assault awareness night campout at the college campus in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, April 19, 2013.

Victims of sexual assault are also experiencing the ripple effects of the government shutdown.

According to an Education Department spokesman, the federal government shutdown has temporarily suspended investigations by the Office of Civil Rights, the unit at the Department of Education responsible for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses.

Cameron French, Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of Education told that 94% of the department, including the Office for Civil Rights, is currently furloughed, and the Education Department is "not able to do its job as a result of the shutdown."

Responsible for enforcing Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights reviews and investigates sexual violence policies at colleges and universities that are accused of violating the gender equity law and the Clery Act, which requires all colleges and universities to disclose all information about campus crimes, including sexual offenses.

The shutdown has backlogged sexual violence complaints and has also currently placed on-site visits, communication with federal investigators, and case and follow-up reviews on hold, according to French. Students at various colleges and universities have accused their schools of violating Title IX and the Clery Act, and of mishandling cases of sexual misconduct.

"With the increase in federal investigations of sexual assault cases, it's really a shame to see the process slow down," said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization.

Students who filed formal complaints hoped these investigations would hold colleges more accountable in addressing sexual violence. "Hopefully, colleges and universities themselves won’t use this as an excuse to delay their own investigations. In terms of protecting public safety and victims of sexual violence on campus, the college has that responsibility. There’s absolutely no excuse in not following through on that," Berkowitz told MSNBC.

Most recently, students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia have alleged their universities have violated of Title IX and the Clearly Act. Other universities currently under federal investigation include Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Occidental College in California, as The New York Times reported. Occidental College has been accused of violating the Clery Act, which establishes specific rules for reporting campus crimes. Formal investigations and complaint reviews at Wesleyan University, Yale University, Dartmouth College, Amherst College and the University of California, Berkeley, were conducted in the past year.

The Office of Civil Rights receives approximately 9,000 complaints in total every year, according to the Department of Education. "In the 2013 fiscal year, the OCR has received approximately 59 Title IX allegations related to sexual violence as of September this year," said French.

The government shutdown also has paused another service by the Education Department, halting the process of any Clery Act compliance inquiries. Typically, students, faculty and alumni file official claims that their colleges under-report sexual misconduct on campuses.

"One of the valuable things from this news is seeing that the DOE is taking this issue so seriously now. It has scared many schools in compliance or closer to compliance with the law," said Scott Berkowitz. "It used to be the unfortunate case that they could function however they wanted."

Student activism has gained traction in the past year with college students working with grassroots organizations and national womens' organizations to bring attention to the issue. One of these groups, SAFER or Students Active for Ending Rape, works with students to implement and reform strong college sexual assault policies on campus.

"While the government shutdown presents a hurdle on the path to justice for sexual assault survivors, we believe that the momentum created by student activists around the issue of sexual assault on college and university campuses will continue to sustain itself throughout the government shutdown and lead to long-term, positive change on campuses nationwide," said Tracey Vitchers of SAFER, an organization aimed at fighting sexual violence and rape culture through student-led campaigns. "Student-led campaigns have shown that student sexual assault survivors are persistent in their mission to achieve justice despite the many challenges that come their way."