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The U.S. Department of Education says two recent settlements will serve as a new model for how colleges, universities, and the department deal with allegations of campus sexual assault — the focus of a Center for Public Integrity investigation earlier this year.

In a Dec. 2 posting on its website, the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) made public what it calls “voluntary resolution agreements” with two schools where high-profile instances of sexual assaults had occurred — Notre Dame College, in South Euclid, Ohio, and Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti. Both agreements come after a proactive, two-year review by civil rights investigators into the institutions to ensure their policies comply with Title IX — the federal law that requires schools to respond to claims of sexual assault on campuses. According to OCR, the agreements are meant to address possible problems under the law the OCR has initially identified at the schools; they do not reflect charges of any formal Title IX violations.

In February, the Center — in collaboration with National Public Radio — reported that the Education Department rarely investigates student allegations of botched school proceedings. When cases do go forward, the department’s civil rights office rarely rules against schools, and virtually never issues sanctions against them. The year-long investigation, published in the six-part series Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice, also revealed that students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses often face little or no punishment, while student victims encounter a litany of barriers that leave them feeling victimized again.

Administrators at both Notre Dame College and Eastern Michigan came under fire in recent years after sexual assaults on those campuses made national headlines. About four years ago, EMU officials were accused of trying to cover up the dorm rape and murder of student Laura Dickinson, when they issued a statement saying that foul play had not occurred. In June 2008, a complaint to the Education Department spurred by the Dickinson case resulted in a $350,000 fine against the university for multiple violations of the Clery Act — the federal campus-crime reporting act that also provides key rights to student assault victims.

Notre Dame College officials were similarly accused of trying to sweep reports of campus sexual assault under the rug. In June 2006, prosecutors charged the school’s former dean of students, Patricia O’Toole, with failure to report a felony after she had sat on information about two complaints of alleged sexual assaults involving the same accused student. The dean was eventually acquitted of the criminal charge. But last year, the Education Department found that the college had violated Clery reporting requirements in responding to the alleged assaults. The department has yet to issue any sanctions against the college.

Russlyn Ali, an assistant secretary at the department — who directs the civil rights office — said in an interview last week that the recent OCR settlements present a new paradigm for how colleges and universities nationwide will address campus sexual assaults. The pacts include measures that Ali describes as “far more robust” than what the OCR has sought in the past. Under the terms of the agreements, the schools must draft comprehensive procedures for adjudicating sexual assault cases. They must designate Title IX coordinators who will oversee the campus adjudicatory process, and train staff on how to investigate and resolve complaints.

But beyond these changes, Ali says, the agreements aim to change a culture on college campuses that often breeds student-on-student sexual violence. For instance, the agreements require the schools to conduct informational sessions with their students on their Title IX rights, and to establish campus committees charged with devising outreach and educational strategies to prevent the recurrence of sexual assaults. The OCR, which has laid out firm deadlines for the schools to implement these provisions, will monitor the progress over the next three years, in part through on-site visits.

“Taken as a whole, these settlements will change the culture on the college campuses,” Ali told the Center, “and that is hugely important if we are to cure the epidemic of sexual violence on our college campuses across the country.”

Officials at both schools praised the OCR settlements as a chance for them to be proactive. The OCR agreements will help them strengthen existing procedures, they say, and encourage new initiatives designed to improve student awareness of the process. “For us,” said David Armstrong, of Notre Dame College, “it’s about us trying to get out in front and to be a leader in this area.” EMU’s Walter Kraft, echoing the sentiment, said the settlement “certainly fits into our philosophy, which is to do the right thing.”

Victim advocates praised the settlements as a substantive improvement over the OCR’s previously weak enforcement of Title IX, as did student conduct administrators. But Daniel Carter, of the advocacy group Security on Campus, points out that the settlements cannot truly address the big-picture issue of how colleges and universities deal with sexual assaults because, in the end, their solid, worthy provisions will only be required of these two schools. “It doesn’t mean these settlements aren’t important,” he said. “It just means that they cannot alone solve the problem.”

Carter and other victim advocates are putting their hope for big-picture progress on legislation introduced last week by Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat. Perriello’s proposed Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act would amend the Clery Act to strengthen campus policies and procedures regarding cases of campus sexual assault. The bill would expand required campus education programs to include primary prevention and bystander intervention for students. And the measure would better protect victims’ rights by guaranteeing support services on campus. The bill would also establish firm, minimum, national procedures for all colleges and universities to follow in responding to allegations of sexual assault and sexual violence.

“What we’re trying to do with universities is make sure that these incidents are treated like crimes and not as ‘boys will be boys’ behavior,” said Perriello. He says the bill’s language is the product of a year’s worth of work with victim advocates, university administrators, and law enforcement authorities.

Perriello, who lost his recent bid for re-election, says he is working to identify lawmakers who might sponsor the bill in the next Congressional session; among the co-sponsors in the House are Tennessee Republican John Duncan and California Democrat Jim Costa. Aides to the pair say they were focused on the current session, but plan to re-evaluate Perriello’s legislation. Costa is co-chair of the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus.

Meanwhile, the OCR’s Ali says her office will be working to push for such big-picture reform when it rolls out a much-anticipated regulatory guidance in early 2011 regarding how colleges and universities should handle campus sexual assaults. And she says her office will continue its proactive “compliance reviews” of other institutions; last June, it opened a Title IX review into the policies and procedures at The Ohio State University, and is readying to initiate similar actions against three more universities in the next year.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.