The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating Baylor University for its handling of sexual violence on campus, the department confirmed Wednesday.
The investigation comes after more than a year of scandal at the university over its response to allegations of sexual assault by students, especially football players. Multiple rape victims have reported that their cases were ignored or mishandled by university officials, including some cases involving accusations of rape against football players.
The university said Wednesday that it will cooperate with the review and has already identified 105 changes to its policies and procedures that will improve how it handles sexual assault cases.
“Within five months, we have completed or made significant progress on more than 90 percent of these recommendations,” said Baylor University Interim President David E. Garland in a statement. “Should the OCR identify additional areas of improvement, we will work on those immediately.”
Garland added, “We are wholeheartedly committed to cultivating a safe and supportive environment for all members of the Baylor community.”
Universities are required by federal law to investigate whenever a student makes an allegation of sexual assault against another student or university employee. That investigation is supposed to run parallel to any criminal investigation. If the university concludes that it is more likely than not that an assault occurred, the school is required to take action even if criminal charges aren’t filed.
The Department of Education has been aggressive in investigating schools for violating Title IX in that regard. Right now, there are 281 sexual violence cases under investigation by the federal department; 10 involve Texas schools. The department usually doesn’t make public what exactly it is investigating. In at least one case in Texas — at Texas A&M University — the department appears to be looking into whether the university went too far in punishing a student who was accused of sexual assault, according to public records.
In an unusual step, however, the Department of Education identified what prompted its investigation into Baylor.
“OCR opened the investigation after receiving a complaint from the former Baylor Title IX coordinator,” the department said in a statement. “Consistent with federal privacy statutes, OCR typically does not identify the specific parties, including complainants, involved in our civil rights cases. In this instance, the complainant has given permission for OCR to identify her and has spoken publicly about her complaint.”
That Title IX coordinator is Patty Crawford, who left the school earlier this month. She has publicly alleged that the university has prevented her from doing her job adequately. In an interview with CBS soon after her departure, she said Baylor officials were concerned with “protecting the brand” instead of students.
“I continued to work hard, and the harder I worked, the more resistance I received from senior leadership,” she said.
The investigation is just the latest step in the continued fallout at Baylor since last August, when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of raping another student. During the trial, it was revealed that Baylor investigated the allegations against Ukwuachu but took little action other than suspending him from the football team while his trial was pending. Soon after, other similar cases came to light.
The university hired the law firm Pepper Hamilton to review the allegations. It released a scathing report that included claims that Baylor “failed to consistently support” students who reported sexual assault and “failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community.”
The report said that administrators at times intervened in sexual violence complaints, and said that coaches met with victims who made allegations against football players, but didn’t pass those allegations on to anyone outside the athletic department.
Football coach Art Briles and university president Ken Starr were both ousted soon after the report was made public.
The university has also been sued by multiple current and former students who say they were assaulted on or off campus, but didn’t receive sufficient support from the university. The Department of Education expects students to accommodate victims as much as possible to make sure they can complete their schooling.
Now, the Department of Education will likely reach out to the school and request documents and other records detailing how it handled reported those cases. Investigations can drag on for years — some open cases date back to 2013 — and the department has the power to cut off federal funding to universities, a potentially crippling blow to schools that collect millions of tuition dollars from students who receive federal grants and loans. The department has never taken that drastic step, however. It does frequently enter into agreements in which the universities promise to change their procedures.