The University of Massachusetts Amherst today said that a “compliance review,’’ not a Title IX complaint, prompted the federal education department’s ongoing investigation into whether the school violated rules around the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
The US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for the first time today released a complete list of all of the higher education institutions nationwide that are under investigation for possible Title IX violations.
Officials said the list of 55 institutions includes some that are being investigated because of specific complaints individuals made to the Education Department and others that are being investigated as part of a “compliance review.’’
In response, UMass Amherst issued a statement today saying that the education department’s investigation there was initiated as a compliance review and not due to a Title IX complaint.
“The Department of Education regularly conducts proactive compliance reviews of schools that receive federal funds,’’ the university said in a statement.
But, Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the Education Department, said in a statement that “compliance reviews are not random audits of schools — they are selected based on various sources of information, including statistical data, news reports and information from parents, advocacy groups and community organizations.’’
“Compliance reviews are initiated in order to remedy possible violations of students’ rights,’’ Nolt added. “Both compliance reviews and complaint-based investigations can include narrower allegations pertaining to one or more individuals; issues related to school policies or practices that are systemic in nature and impact entire student bodies, schools, or school systems; or a combination of these elements.’’
UMass Amherst, like many other colleges and universities, has come under fire in recent years for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases.
In 2010, a report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and published in the Globe detailed how a UMass Amherst student had allegedly confessed to raping a friend on campus yet was allowed to remain enrolled at the campus.
The report prompted outcry and led the university’s administration to establish a special committee to review the campus-wide student code of conduct.
The university said in its statement today that it has since revised that code of conduct “to strengthen its sexual misconduct policy.’’
The Education Department’s compliance review began on June 30, 2011 and no conclusions have been reached, the university said.
UMass officials said two campus-wide emails were sent out in the fall of 2011 to explain the review and to encourage participation.
“Compliance reviews are designed to address systemic issues and ensure that violations are readily identified and promptly eliminated,’’ said one of the messages sent to the campus at the time. “We applaud the work of the OCR and are confident that any information that results from this compliance review will have a direct and positive impact throughout the university.’’
Campus officials also noted that the university this year launched the “UMatter at UMass’’ campaign, which includes “extensive bystander intervention training for students and employees,’’ and it is launching a “Men and Masculinity Center’’ to engage men on the issue of sexual assault.
The university also pointed to its partnership with the Center for Women and Community, which has been housed at UMass Amherst for four decades providing support to survivors of sexual assault and offering sexual assault prevention education.
Officials said that center recently received a $270,000 federal grant to bolster its efforts.
Last year, the center’s sexual assault hotline responded to more than 500 calls from area college students and provided crisis intervention and support to 227 victims of violence affiliated with UMass and four other nearby colleges, according to Becky Lockwood, associate director of counseling and rape crisis services at the center.
The Education Department said today it released the list of schools under investigation to try to “bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights.’’
The department said it will not disclose details about any cases aside from when the investigations began.
When an investigation is completed, the department will disclose, upon request, whether the schools have been found in violation and entered into an agreement to address compliance concerns or whether insufficient evidence of a violation was found.
The decision to publicize the list comes two days after a newly-established White House task force published its first report and a list recommendations for combating sexual assault on college campuses.
“The task force has done outstanding work in providing strategies to prevent sexual assault, respond compassionately to victims and hold perpetrators accountable,’’ said a statement from UMass Amherst’s vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life Enku Gelaye.
“We fully support their work, and we have already been actively engaged in implementing many of the best practices recommended by the task force,’’ she added. “Much more must be done to safeguard our students and we are committed to that effort.’’
Other local schools named on the list responded today.
A Boston University spokesman told the Globe that the university is under investigation for a complaint filed last fall. He said the university believes it did not violate Title IX, but is cooperating with the investigation and is open to any recommendations that could lead to improvement.
Harvard’s undergraduate college and its law school were both named in today’s list. A university spokesman told the Globe administrators there take sexual violence and harassment seriously and has taken steps to improve its prevention and victim support services.
Other Massachusetts schools listed as being under investigation were: Emerson College and Amherst College.
Earlier this week, the Education Department announced it found through an investigation that Tufts University violated Title IX rules. The university denied the department’s findings.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, officials said.
Colleges, universities and K-12 schools that receive federal funds are required to comply with Title IX rules. Institutions that violate the law and fail to address problems can lose their federal funding and can be referred to the US Department of Justice for further action, officials said.