WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - The Education Department on Thursday took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of the 55 colleges and universities currently facing a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.
The list of schools named by the Education Department includes the Catholic University of America, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and Frostburg State University.
At Catholic University on Thursday, students we spoke with were surprised to hear about the investigation their school is currently facing.
"I think it's more just puzzling that we're one of the universities included in the investigation," said Frank Granito.
It was just recently that there was a sexual assault awareness campaign on campus – but now, the university is one of 55 across the country on the list for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
A spokesman for Catholic University told us via a statement that the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education notified the school that a student had filed a complaint regarding an investigation and adjudication from a sexual assault that happened back in December of 2012:
"The University has cooperated fully with the Department of Education to provide all of the information that the department has requested in a timely manner. It will continue to do so and is confident that there will be a just resolution of this matter."
"Usually when we hear about something or when we hear about sexual assault, we usually get an email and it seems to be handled pretty well," said Catholic student Nick Cotese.
Officials at the Department of Education would not release any specific facts or details about the institutions under investigation, but only said they hope the list brings more transparency and awareness on the issue.
"I feel safe on campus, and you don't think that is something going on around where you're at," said Sandra Orta.
The department has also made it clear that being on the list doesn’t mean these institutions are necessarily violating or have violated the law.
The release came two days after a White House task force promised greater government transparency on sexual assault in higher education. Going forward, the department said, it will keep an updated list of schools facing such an investigation and make it available upon request.
The agency previously would confirm such an investigation when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.
"We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue," Catherine E. Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
Lhamon said a school's appearance on the list does not mean that it has violated the law but that an investigation is ongoing.
Title IX prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees girls equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.
Citing research, the White House has said that 1 in 5 female students is assaulted. President Barack Obama appointed a task force comprised of his Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about the poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.
The task force announced the creation of a website, notalone.gov, offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims' advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on their campuses.
The department publicized guidance on Title IX's sexual assault provisions in 2011, and complaints by students have since increased. Complaints, however, don't always lead to an investigation.
The department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn't comply with the law, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have said non-compliance under the law is "far too common." They say a lack of federal resources is partly to blame for that, and they've sought more money to ensure timely and proper investigations.
Another law that campus sexual assault cases fall under is the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to report crime statistics on or near their campuses. It also requires schools to develop prevention policies and ensure victims their basic rights. Investigations under this law are not included in the list that was released.