A group of current and former female Vanderbilt University students filed a complaint with federal officials Thursday charging that the university responded inadequately to reports of sexual assault.
Organized by a senior student who was sexually assaulted in 2010, six women — four on campus now and two alumni — contributed to the filing. The senior student, Sarah O'Brien, said women are discouraged from going forward with reports of sexual violence, university staff have failed to follow through after incidents of sexual assault, education efforts are lacking and help for victims is not readily available.
The Tennessean does not normally name victims of sexual assault, but O'Brien asked to be identified.
A spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the Office of Civil Rights received the emailed document, sent after midnight.
University officials were not given a copy — and won't receive one from federal officials. They issued a statement to The Tennessean vowing cooperation if federal officials decide to investigate further.
"We take the concerns of our students very seriously and share their goal of assuring that the university maintains a culture that rejects sexual violence and supports victims of sexual violence," Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs, said in a prepared statement. "We have long had policies and procedures in place to deal with complaints of sexual misconduct and to support students who report incidents of sexual misconduct and violence."
The complaint comes in the wake of the rape of an unconscious female student in a dorm in June. That led Nashville police to arrest four football players on rape charges, setting off rounds of close and ongoing media attention. The four were kicked off the team when the investigation unfolded.
The Tennessean reviewed 59 pages from the filing, of more than 70 pages altogether.
The students included personal stories and descriptions of how they were treated after coming forward. Those will be reviewed by Atlanta-based federal officials with an eye toward investigating possible university violations of two federal laws — the Clery Act and Title IX — which together require universities to be responsive to sexual assault and to accurately report crime statistics. Federal officials can choose to launch in-depth investigations.
The filing is the first step in an extended process that can lead to penalties, including fines for public and private universities.
A range of claims
The students' claims range from thoroughly documented personal stories to sparse allegations built around anonymous website commentaries, as well as explosive charges made briefly but without supporting materials or significant elaboration.
They challenge campus program and staff changes. They say some rapes go unreported and question the tone of some events on campus, suggesting that the climate is hostile to women.
The Vanderbilt women are the latest to join in a wave of complaints against colleges and universities in recent years, including some in which students on distant campuses worked together to learn the legal process.
"We have women who were ignored, who were told not to continue filing. They were not read their rights under Title IX and the Clery Act," Sarah O'Brien said.
O'Brien spearheaded the filing. One additional student confirmed her involvement but asked not to be identified. She described herself as a sexual assault survivor, but her grievance relates mostly to "insufficient" administrative responses to an intense harassment situation, one she said "corrupted" her college experience.
"The big thing for all of us involved is to give voice to a problem that is not addressed properly on our campus," O'Brien said.
The provisions of Title IX, the federal law on gender-based discrimination, demands that universities investigate assaults, act to prevent recurrences and not dissuade victims from pursuing criminal cases.
The student complaints also may raise questions under what is known as the Clery Act, a 1990 law that requires colleges to collect and disclose campus crime statistics.
A revised version of the act approved this year noted that as many as a quarter of female students will experience rape or attempted rape during college. The updated version amped up language regarding university responsibilities for assisting victims, raising awareness and training staff, residential advisers and athletic coaches.
Federal officials do not typically say whether they are investigating Clery-related complaints, and did not comment Thursday on the situation at Vanderbilt.
O'Brien, who participated in a campus demonstration Wednesday in support of sexual assault survivors, also helped write an 11-page letter, which the Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence delivered to university administrators, requesting changes to how sexual assault is addressed.
O'Brien said she was sexually assaulted after a night of intense drinking and then discouraged by a university staff member from reporting it.
She was a successful bowler for the university team but has turned her attention to campus advocacy.
June rape addressed
The filing refers to university actions that followed the June rape of a student and ongoing criminal prosecutions of former football players. At the time, Vanderbilt leaders said they acted quickly to expel the men and to support the alleged victim, who remained on campus.
University leaders, in interviews with The Tennessean not long after the incident, described the campus sexual misconduct policy, prevention programs and victim services as going far beyond federal mandates. They also vowed a careful review and pledged to shore up any shortcomings.
Vanderbilt went through a "painstaking revision" of policies beginning in 2011, ahead of a federal deadline aimed at all institutions. Among changes was a shifting of sexual assault investigations to trained legal staff and clarifications about how the university responds to assaults and counts incidents.
Administrators said the university has gone even further to try to change student behaviors and a culture they say has perpetuated sexual violence. That shift included adoption of the "Green Dot" program to raise awareness and encourage all students to take responsibility for preventing assaults.
In recent years, college sexual assault survivors have banded together, often between distant campuses, to learn from one another while preparing complaints. Students at Yale University, state universities from California to North Carolina, and Dartmouth and Swarthmore colleges have formalized their concerns in filings.
After speaking in recent weeks with O'Brien, two Amherst College students lodged a similar complaint Thursday. Amherst, like Vanderbilt, has been in the spotlight recently over a high-profile assault case.
Although the specifics vary, the movement takes colleges to task for failing to educate students, investigate cases and help survivors, and for misreporting crime statistics.
Earlier this year, Yale was fined $155,000 for Clery Act violations, federal documents show.