Title IX complaint against American University opened for investigation
University under investigation for Title IX violations for second time in two years
After filing a Title IX complaint against the University in March, senior Faith Ferber has confirmed that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the Department of Education has opened her complaint for official investigation.
This marks the University’s second federal investigation for sexual violence violations of Title IX in two years, having joined a rapidly growing list of universities under investigation from the OCR in March 2015.
Ferber said she had been in contact with the OCR for about a month, during which she talked to a lawyer there and was told they would “definitely” open the case for investigation, the next step for the OCR after they have obtained sufficient details from the complainant. She received a formal notification letter on June 23.
“I’m really happy that the ball is at least getting rolling,” Ferber told The Eagle in an email. “I know it will take months and even years for the investigation to be completed, but at least now I don’t have to deal with [Vice President of Campus Life] Gail Hanson consistently writing off everyone’s outrage by saying ‘we haven’t even received notice of this complaint.’”
Hanson confirmed via email that the University had received notification of a Title IX complaint from OCR. She added that Heather Pratt, the University’s Title IX officer, will send a memo to the campus community on Monday that shares this information and what will be required in response.
“We will do our part to ensure that OCR can conduct a full and thorough investigation,” Hanson said.
Ferber filed her complaint on March 7, accusing the University of violating Title IX by requiring her to sign a confidentiality agreement before her student conduct hearing. Ferber has said she did not know the agreement violated Title IX until a Department of Justice official informed her in December.
“Being forced to sign a confidentiality agreement silences survivors and allows the University to continue mishandling sexual assault cases by threatening students with conduct charges if they don’t comply,” Ferber said in March. “There’s no reason that a survivor should ever have to choose between attempting to get justice and being able to speak out.”
In the months since Ferber went public with her filing, students and alumni have rallied around her concerns about the University’s policies toward sexual assault cases. A petition started by AU alumna Bianca Palmisano received over 80,000 signatures, leading to an April 19 meeting that included Ferber, Palmisano and several administrators.
Palmisano released a document from the meeting on April 26 that reflected administrators’ efforts to address alumni and student grievances. According to the document, the University will incorporate a revised confidentiality policy into the 2016-2017 Student Conduct Code and work to alleviate long wait-times for conduct hearings, among other proposed solutions.
Though administrators have taken steps to address concerns raised by Ferber’s complaint, the University is still under investigation for separate alleged Title IX sexual violence violations first made public in March 2015. Since the announcement of that investigation, the University has implemented Empower AU, a mandatory sexual assault education program for incoming freshmen, and hired Title IX officer Pratt, who came on board in December.
However, little has been released about the progress of the first investigation, including what recommendations might be made by the OCR to the University. The timeline for either investigation is unknown, with Ferber noting the “OCR is super backlogged.” As of June 15, there are currently 246 ongoing investigations into the sexual violence policies of 195 universities, as previously reported by The Huffington Post. The OCR’s budget has shrunk over the past few decades as the number of complaints has risen dramatically, leaving many complainants in limbo for years.
Ellie Hartleb contributed to this report.