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Advocates Worry About New Era Of Secrecy On Campus Rape

Concerns were raised after the Department of Education failed to publicize the outcome of a Title IX investigation, a break with transparency of the past. "This is deeply concerning."

Posted on February 23, 2017, at 5:49 p.m. ET

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Advocates for campus sexual assault victims fear the Education Department under Betsy Devos will try to diminish attention on campus rape by rolling back the Obama-era practice of publicizing results of university investigations into Title IX violations.

Concerns were raised following the announcement Monday by the University of Alaska system that it had signed an agreement with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to end a three-year review into how it handles sexual assault complaints. However, by Thursday, the Education Department had not released any information about the case, and it would not say if it planned to.

The silence is a break from how the department closed major sexual assault investigations in recent years. Since 2014, it has issued press releases to announce when probes of how colleges handled rape reports ended. It generally posted on its website agreements reached between the schools and the department and the findings from the investigations, and it stated whether the school had violated Title IX, the gender equity law.

“This is deeply concerning,” Dana Bolger, a co-founder of the advocacy group Know Your IX, told BuzzFeed News. “Letters of finding are critical to exposing what's gone on on campus, helping students hold their schools accountable, and affirming survivors' experiences. Students and their families have the right to know of schools' noncompliance with the law.”

Over the past month, advocates for sexual assault victims have hounded DeVos, urging her to continue Obama-era policies on how the department enforces Title IX. Many fear that the department will be less aggressive, and could become less transparent, in its handling of Title IX investigations.

“It’s really important for people to be able to see how these complaints are being resolved,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “It helps other schools better understand what they need to be doing, and it gives students and families greater confidence that OCR is protecting their civil rights.”

The Education Department started proactively releasing results from Title IX investigations after President Obama’s White House task force on campus sexual assault promised in 2014 to make its civil rights work more transparent. During the George W. Bush administration, reporters and members of the public typically needed to file Freedom Of Information Act requests to get copies of these investigation outcomes.

“If Trump's Office for Civil Rights is planning to plunge campus rape back into the shadows, they should expect to hear from us.”

After the university’s Monday announcement, BuzzFeed News made several requests for comment from the Education Department. No one at the department would say if it still plans to make public outcomes of Title IX investigations or whether it planned to release findings from the Alaska investigation.

“We're not going to stand for a return to the black box,” Bolger said. “If Trump's OCR is planning to plunge campus rape back into the shadows, they should expect to hear from us.”

The silence from the department “could signal a shift back to no longer publicizing this information,” said S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety consultant.

The voluntary resolutions that schools sign to end an investigation come after a 90-day negotiation period, and they lay out what reforms the institutions will make to improve their handling of sexual assault complaints. A resolution letter with the federal probe’s findings is typically released to the university within a couple of days after a school signs the agreement, according to Carter.

There was previously a scare among advocates when the Education Department failed to make an updated list of colleges under Title IX investigations available to reporters. The issue was addressed within a day, but it spooked anti-violence groups who feared the department was inching away from transparency.

University of Alaska officials told BuzzFeed News they received the government’s findings on Thursday and posted the contents on its website. James R. Johnsen, president of the university system, described the findings as highlighting “very serious failures.”

One failure cited in the government’s findings was that the school frequently failed to investigate reports of students committing sexual assaults, and didn’t offer help to victims. In one case, the school disciplined a student for underage drinking after she was “found in a university residential building intoxicated, unconscious, and wrapped in a blanket with her clothing partially undone,” according to the findings. Case records showed a soldier was court-martialed for sexually assaulting that student and received three years of confinement for it.

As a result of the Title IX investigation, the university system must now reexamine two dozen cases from 2011 through 2015.

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