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Facing scrutiny on sex assault, college asks feds for review

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IOWA CITY, Iowa >> Facing scrutiny over its practices for responding to sexual assault, a liberal arts college in Iowa has taken the unusual step of asking federal investigators to review whether three cases were handled appropriately.

Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to determine whether the college complied with Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education.

The office praised the request Tuesday as a sign of progress toward addressing campus sexual violence. However, a student activist group, Dissenting Voices, called it a public relations move to get ahead of negative publicity and a Title IX complaint that it filed Feb. 19.

“It is simply a way of providing cover to the institution after years of betraying survivors,” the group said in a statement.

The statement praised Grinnell for making some recent “excellent policy changes” but said they did not fully address issues raised in its complaint. Neither Dissenting Voices nor Rebecca Stout, a lawyer working with the group, responded to requests for comment left by email or voicemail.

National experts agreed the college’s request was noteworthy, even if its motives were unclear and open for debate.

“This is absolutely unprecedented,” said Colby Bruno, a lawyer who represents college rape victims with the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston. “A big part of me wants to say, ‘oh my gosh, this is terrific. This is a school that really wants to get ahead of the game and help its students’. Then there is a side of me saying, no one else has ever done this so what are they doing? Something as unusual as this definitely throws up some red flags.”

Kington said a reporter for the Huffington Post last week asked Grinnell, a private school of 1,600 students in central Iowa, to address concerns raised by students about the way the school handled three cases dating back to the 2011-2012 academic year.

He said he was prevented by privacy laws from confirming and rebutting some of the allegations, and asked for the federal review in the hopes of obtaining a neutral fact-finding. Kington acknowledged that the college had some shortcomings related to its handling of the prior cases, has made several changes to address them and is ready to confront any other lapses identified.

Kington said he was unaware of the student group’s complaint when he requested the review in a letter Monday. The Department of Education wouldn’t confirm Tuesday whether it had received the complaint, saying its policy is to notify the parties involved only after it decides to open an investigation. Kington said that hadn’t happened.

Typically, college presidents have tried to avoid an OCR investigation, which can bring negative publicity, be time-intensive and end in federally-required changes. But Kington said the office, which is currently investigating 97 colleges, is “uniquely equipped” to determine whether Grinnell followed the spirit and letter of the law.

Because colleges typically cannot comment on specific cases, Kington said an unfair media narrative has developed that claims colleges do not take the problem of sexual assault seriously. He said that idea discourages students from reporting assaults and leads to bad public policy.

He called his request for federal intervention a risk worth taking.

“We know we’re a small college in the middle of Iowa,” Kington said. “We could be erased in a moment by any number of forces. OCR could destroy us. The press could destroy us. But you know what? We’re willing to take that chance because we are doing what we think is right. It would be the height of cowardice for us to not engage because of fear that it will affect our reputation.”

In a statement, the Office for Civil Rights didn’t say whether it would investigate, but it praised the move.

“The department commends Grinnell College for its commitment to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn in an environment free from sexual violence,” it said.

Grinnell has recently hired former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus to make findings and recommend sanctions in sexual misconduct cases. She replaces a hearing panel of students, staff and faculty that Kington said the college had expected too much from.

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