Friday, November 24, 2017
Education

New federal investigation targets USF handling of sexual violence case

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TAMPA — The University of South Florida is under a second federal investigation for possibly mishandling a case of campus sexual violence.

Federal officers took up the case last week, following a student complaint against USF in late August with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a letter to USF President Judy Genshaft, the office says it will examine whether USF "promptly and equitably" responded to the complaining student’s case.

RELATED: USF under federal investigation for handling of rape case

The office is requesting scores of documents related to USF’s policies, procedures and training on sexual violence and harassment. But specifics are scant, as much of the information about the initial case and the new investigation is exempt from disclosure.

In a statement, USF spokesman Adam Freeman said USF remains confident that its resources and procedures demonstrate a commitment to a safe and healthy campus.

"USF strives to be a campus that leads the way in promoting a culture where sexual violence is a rare occurrence and simply not tolerated," he said. "USF will remain proactive in ensuring our community members have access to the best information, prevention programs and services."

The university strongly encourages victims to come forward, he said.

Title IX law forbids sex discrimination, including sexual assault and harassment, at federally-funded institutions. When schools are accused of running afoul of guidelines for handling these complicated cases, the federal government may step in.

USF is one of 255 colleges and universities nationwide under investigation for potential mishandling of campus sexual violence cases. In all, 354 investigations remain open among them.

Of those open cases, 13 are at Florida universities. Seven were opened this year: one each at USF, Embry-Riddle and Florida State, and two each at Florida and Central Florida.

Last week’s letter to USF offered few clues, but cited a subsection of Title IX law dealing with grievance procedures. The section stipulates that universities must point students to employees who deal with Title IX, and that universities "shall adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution" of complaints.

The office then asked USF for a long list of information, much of it related to university protocol in cases of sexual misconduct.

In particular, the office is interested in how USF publicizes its procedures, as well as how it trains employees to report and investigate reports of sexual violence. The office also asks for similar training materials provided to students, "including, but not limited to, athletes, presidents/captains of student groups, and resident assistants" — as well as names of instructors and attendees at those training sessions.

Beyond policy questions, the office is requesting documents specifically related to the student who filed the sexual violence complaint, including investigative materials, interviews and notes about the case.

USF has a month to return all of that information.

The Office for Civil Rights doesn’t provide a timeline for how long the investigation might take. The Education Department’s press office said it does not comment on specific cases.

The department receives thousands of complaints per year, but not all lead to investigations. The department rules out cases that aren’t timely and lack clear allegations.

USF already has a lingering investigation from fall 2014, which stemmed from a student’s complaint that the university failed to properly investigate her case.

In that case, the young woman had been dating the man who she said forced himself on her, she told the Tampa Bay Times in 2015. After a few weeks, she told her manager at her on-campus job about the assault, since the man worked there, too. Her boss was supposed to bring the allegations to USF, but apparently did not. Later, after the young woman visited the victim advocacy office, USF investigated and determined there was "no cause" for the allegations due to "insufficient evidence."

The woman said university officials had altered her statements and ignored inaccuracies in those of others. She turned to the U.S. Department of Education, which decided to investigate. The case remains open.

USF has instituted a number of programs to boost education about sexual violence, such as an online module for incoming students, student training sessions on bystander intervention and a "Got Consent/It’s On Us" campaign about how to combat rape culture.

Officials said that employees are trained in how to respond to students who open up about assault, and that USF has three offices where students can confidentially report. The university has also increased the number of staffers who deal with Title IX issues.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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