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Feds List Schools Under Investigation For Abuse Claims


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A Supreme Court justice famously said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Louis Brandeis meant that publicity changes bad behavior, and this appears to be the theory followed by the U.S. Department of Education. For the first time, the department released names of colleges and universities that are currently under investigation for the way they have handled sexual assaults.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has been covering this issue for several years. He's in our studios. Joe, good morning.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what comes to mind when you look at this list of 55 schools?

SHAPIRO: The list makes clear that there's no school that's immune from this problem of sexual assault. You've got four-year schools, community colleges, graduate schools, undergraduate schools. There are big, public universities on the list - the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley; there are small, private colleges - Amherst, Swarthmore; Ivy League schools - Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth.

INSKEEP: Although, we should be clear, the Department of Education is not saying they're guilty. They're saying the schools are under investigation. So what is it they are alleged to have done, exactly, or failed to do?

SHAPIRO: So it means there was an allegation of a sexual assault. The school investigated it. But the person who brought the complaint wasn't satisfied. They thought it took too long, or the investigation wasn't done well. And the person then has the right to file a complaint with the Department of Education, and ask the department to see if the school did what it was supposed to do, to investigate.

INSKEEP: So the question here at these 55 schools is: Did the university or college respond adequately to a complaint of sexual assault on campus? Now, some of these cases do get publicity. Were some of these names already known, that these universities were being questioned?

SHAPIRO: Most of them were known. But of the 55 investigations, about a third had not been in the news. So the schools, they knew they were under investigation, but the public did not.

I talked to Catherine Lhamon. She's the assistant secretary of education, for civil rights. So she's in charge of these investigations. And she admitted, she was nervous. She said she had a pit in her stomach about releasing the names of these schools that, at this point, were simply being investigated.

And here's what Assistant Secretary Lhamon said.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CATHERINE LHAMON: Well, it's a tough call, right. The fact of an investigation doesn't mean that a school has actually done anything wrong. It means that we're investigating to determine whether it has done something wrong. I also believe in my heart that greater transparency will really move this conversation forward.

INSKEEP: And, of course, the investigations move forward as well. Suppose that a school is found to have done something wrong. What does the department do then?

SHAPIRO: So the first step is that the department tries to sign an agreement with the school that outlines a plan for how they're going to correct things. And last year, there were agreements with campuses at the State University of New York, and also with the University of Montana. And just this week, it came out that Tufts University decided to back out of an agreement that it signed last month. And at issue there was the way it delayed, and then investigated, a student's complaint in 2010 that she'd been sexually assaulted.

The school's president said Tufts has already taken a lot of steps to improve its investigations. The Department of Education wants more. Assistant Secretary Lhamon told me that the two sides are still talking, though, and she's optimistic that they're going to come to an agreement.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens when a school does not, in the end, agree with the Department of Education over how to fix what the DOE sees as a problem? What happens? What can they do to the school?

SHAPIRO: Well, a school that doesn't fix problems can lose its federal funding. That means students who go to that school can't get federal student aid, and the school could lose federal research grants.

Now, that's a big step. And it's a step that in sexual assault cases, the Department of Education has, so far, never taken.

INSKEEP: Joe, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joseph Shapiro, reporting this morning on a step by the U.S. Department of Education to publicly name 55 colleges and universities across the United States being investigated for the way that they handled accusations of sexual assault. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.

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