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Oglethorpe University Sexual Assault Investigation Revealed

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used open records requests to uncover the secretive world of how universities handle sexual misconduct complaints. Hundreds of schools face investigations under Title IX, which bans gender discrimination in programs receiving federal aid.

In cases of sexual misconduct, students are interviewed individually and their accounts compiled into a report. Both parties can appeal to the vice president of student affairs, university president and Board of Regents.

Reporting

A sexual assault victim might decide to report the crime to the police, but she can also choose to tell her school. Schools are required by federal law to investigate reports of sexual assault and must have clear procedures for doing so. But those procedures vary widely from one school to the next.

Often, names and details of cases are kept confidential under a federal law known as FERPA. But the AJC used a public records exemption to obtain some of those details. Those disclosures provide a first-ever look at how colleges handle their own cases.

The AJC found that over a five year period, Georgia’s five largest universities processed 43 cases involving sexual misconduct. Of those, nearly half ended with the student being held responsible. But the students weren’t sent to jail or expelled.

In most cases, a hearing before a panel of three takes place after an investigation. During that process, both parties can make statements and witnesses might be cross-examined.

Investigation

A student at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta says she’s surprised the school is under investigation for how it handled sexual assault. The federal investigation comes after an incident involving one of the university’s students. The specifics won’t be released until the investigation is complete.

The school is among 124 colleges and universities under scrutiny by the Department of Education. The agency is investigating allegations of how those schools handle cases of sexual assault and other misconduct on campus.

Some schools are limiting the number of counseling sessions that a student can have. Others are requiring students to pay for counseling services or get a referral from an outside counselor. But Oglethorpe University is taking a different approach. President Nick Ladany is a clinical psychologist by training and he’s hoping to expand the counseling center’s services to include unlimited sessions for students.

An AJC investigation found that Georgia’s largest colleges pursue cases that prosecutors won’t touch, but those investigations remain shrouded in secrecy. College officials often refuse to disclose basic statistics and even after they resolve a case, records remain shielded under strict education privacy laws.

Appeal

All schools that receive federal education funding must have a standard procedure for responding to allegations of sexual misconduct. Designated staff members are tasked with investigating the incident and holding hearings to decide responsibility and imposing sanctions. However, those accused of a violation often feel that the process is haphazard and does not respect their rights.

In cases that result in a sanction such as expulsion or disciplinary probation, students can choose to appeal the decision. Either party can appeal to the dean of students who reviews as part of a three-member panel, or the case may go all the way up to the university president and Board of Regents.

The investigators, mediators and decision makers must not have a conflict of interest or bias against either the Complainant or Respondent. The process also must not require or allow disclosure of information protected under legal privilege unless the party waives it. The parties are entitled to representation by counsel.

Sanctions

Depending on the severity of the allegations, the assigned conduct officer or hearing board may recommend sanctions up to and including suspension and expulsion from the university. The vice president for student affairs or designee must review any recommendation and determine the sanction(s).

If a responding student or student organization accepts responsibility during an informal resolution, the assigned conduct officer will issue a written outcome letter within five business days. The resolution will include the charges and any reasonable sanctions recommended by the hearing board.

However, some alleged misconduct violations are also violations of federal, state and/or local law or the honor code, which are addressed through external legal proceedings. When this occurs, the University may delay any disciplinary proceedings until after any external investigations are completed. An individual investigator will interview the complaining party, the accused student and any witnesses before making a decision about what discipline to impose. This process takes longer than the informal resolution and can be more stressful for all parties involved.

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