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UH-Manoa handling of sex abuse cases under review

By Star-Advertiser & Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 1:00 p.m. HST, May 1, 2014

The University of Hawaii's flagship Manoa campus is on a list of 55 colleges and universities being investigated to ensure that they comply with federal law in handling sex abuse complaints.

University spokeswoman Diane Chang said the review of UH procedures is a "compliance audit," and was not triggered by a complaint.

The Education Department revealed its list of colleges under investigation for the first time on Thursday -- though no details of any complaints -- as the Obama administration sought to bring more openness to the issue of sexual violence on and around the nation's campuses.

The list includes well known private institutions such as Harvard and Princeton as well public ones such as the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State. 

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was "absolutely zero presumption" of guilt. The Education Department said some of the cases resulted from complaints while others are "compliance reviews," but the list did not specify which was which. 

Chang said the investigators from the Office for Civil Rights have been on campus meeting with students, faculty, staff, administrators and regents.

"Investigative team members stated to UH Manoa executives toward the end of their visit that it was important to keep in mind that this audit was not triggered by a complaint, and that it was not based on an individual incident," Chang said in a statement. 

Few details of individual cases are known. One, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, involves allegations of mishandling of a matter involving a football player. The investigation began after federal authorities received complaints related to the expulsion of Brendan Gibbons, a former placekicker.

A student group examined the school's student sexual misconduct policy and last month determined the university failed to explain a yearslong delay between the alleged incident and Gibbons' expulsion in December. Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the university has been "fully cooperating."

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple met with the investigative team and said its feedback should be helpful.

"The audit is a productive opportunity to see how else we can enhance student safety, above and beyond what we're doing already," he said. "We anticipate a forward-thinking negotiated resolution with the Office of Civil Rights that will enhance the safety of our UH Manoa students."

The Obama administration's effort to bring more attention to the issue of sexual assaults is not limited to colleges.

Separately on Thursday, the Pentagon said that reports of assaults by members of the military have risen 50 percent since the beginning of a campaign to persuade more victims to come forward. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is ordering six initiatives to deal with sexual assaults, including efforts to get more male victims to speak up.

The college investigations are done under Title IX of a U.S. law, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees girls and women 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.

The agency previously would confirm such Title IX investigations when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.

Duncan said there had been "lots of internal debate" about whether to release the list but that transparency is important.

"No one probably loves to have their name on that list," Duncan said during a White House briefing. "But we'll investigate; we'll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we'll be very loud and clear that they've done everything perfectly."

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.

About half of all states have schools under investigation.

Harvard students filed formal complaints in late March to the department saying the college did not respond promptly to reports of sexual violence, that students were subjected to a sexually hostile environment, and that in some cases assault victims were forced to live in the same residence buildings as their alleged assailants.

"Harvard has taken a number of steps to foster prevention efforts and to support students who have experienced sexual misconduct," spokesman Jeff Neal said. They include appointing a Title IX officer to review policies and procedures.

While being on the list might be difficult for schools, Duncan said, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.

The White House has said that as many as 1 in 5 female college students is assaulted. President Barack Obama has appointed a task force of Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.

The task force's report, released just two days earlier, announced the creation of a website,, 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 campuses.

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