Recently, the federal government’s Department of Education announced that it was formally investigating 55 American institutions of higher education for possible violations of Title IX’s rules relating to the prevention and investigation of sexual assault complaints on campus.Some of those investigations were spurred by complaints made by students directly to the Department of Education, while others were initiated in response to press reports of improperly-handled sexual assault allegations. Four New York universities made the list (available in full here): CUNY Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College, SUNY Binghamton, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Other notable schools include Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, and UC Berkeley. NYC’s Columbia University was also recently the subject of three separate but related complaints to the federal government signed on by 23 current and former students that claim they were victimized on campus and then systematically mistreated by the administration.
The Obama administration has recently taken notice of the epidemic of rape and sexual assault on American campuses; shockingly, it has been reported that 1 in 5 female college students are sexually assaulted during their time at university. This number is incredibly alarming and has attracted the attention of numerous legislators seeking additional funding to investigate and combat the problem. Other legislators have proposed legislation requiring college administrators to report all allegations of sexual assault on campus to local law enforcement, to prevent the problem of school administrators subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly discouraging students from making the reports themselves. In further response to the growing awareness of this massive problem on American campuses, a task force was convened in January 2014 that proposed a number of protocol suggestions for administrations to reform their policies for handling sexual assault complaints.
Title IX is federal legislation designed to prevent gender discrimination in schools and universities that receive federal funding. Most people familiar with Title IX have heard of it because of its widespread impact upon college athletics. However, the legislation is actually much broader than that, and most certainly creates a duty on the part of school administrations to protect female students from sexual assault on campus.
Many of the litigants in the recently-filed complaints with the Department of Education seemingly have hoped to spur reforms in their universities’ policies for investigating and handling complaints of sexual assault (as well as improve the educating of students about issues relating to rape and sexual assault). However, what many of these litigants may not realize is that Title IX suits can also be brought privately in federal district courts, and that compensatory damages are available. That means that victims of sexual assault on university campuses might be able to recover significant monetary rewards if they can demonstrate that their universities’ failures somehow further injured them after the assaults that they sustained. One of the seminal cases on the subject of private lawsuits under Title IX was Mercer v. Duke University (though that case applied to college athletics).
It seems to us that many of the victims of rape and sexual assault whose complaints to their college administrations were mishandled could have very meritorious claims that they were secondarily victimized by the people in whom they placed their trust. In short, the jury awards in these types of lawsuits could potentially be substantial, in addition to forcing significant changes in policies and behavior.
If you or a loved one have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault on a college or university campus, and the administration failed to provide adequate security, failed to properly investigate the complaint or take appropriate action against the abuser, and/or discouraged the pursuit of formal charges with law enforcement, then you should strongly consider contacting the experienced civil rights attorneys at Galluzzo & Arnone to determine whether there might be a viable and valuable lawsuit for damages against the institution.