Education Department, Minot State settle sexual assault case

July 8, 2016 GMT

Minot State University and the U.S. Department of Education have reached a settlement following a years-long Title IX investigation that concluded the school failed to process a complaint by a then-student who reported a professor had sexually assaulted her for over two years.

The federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights announced the settlement Thursday. Under the terms of the agreement, the university has agreed to offer and pay for counseling and other remedies for the woman to address any psychological, academic or employment issues she faced as a result of the school’s delay in processing her complaint.

The university came under scrutiny after the woman, who was not identified, filed a complaint with the agency in December 2013 alleging the school had discriminated against her on the basis of sex. The agency summarized the findings of its investigation in a 38-page letter addressed to Steven Shirley, the university’s president.

The letter states that the student told the school about “numerous alleged instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault that began in June 2010 and continued through December 2012.” It also explains that the professor had implied to woman that without his assistance she “would be unable to achieve her professional goals.” The woman also said that the professor and others on his behalf had sent her text messages and emails “to discourage her from pursuing any complaint against him.”

The letter does not address whether the professor was investigated by authorities or criminally charged. The agency found no evidence that the university interviewed the professor, faculty or students about the student’s allegations. It also says that the university did not adjudicate the student’s allegation through hearing procedures, as required by the university’s policies. Instead, when the professor resigned in August 2013, the university halted its investigation.

The agency found that MSU “failed to respond promptly and equitably to student complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault, including by failing to determine whether the students were subjected to a hostile environment,” according to the letter. The agency also found that the school had no designated Title IX coordinator as required by law.

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.

During the investigation, the federal agency reviewed files related to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault for four academic years, visited the university, and interviewed the complainant, students and university staff. The student who prompted the investigation reported her sexual assault to the school in April 2013.

As part of the settlement, the university has also agreed to develop a procedure to document each incident or complaint of discrimination on the basis of sex — including sexual assault and sexual harassment — that it receives. It also must submit to the agency copies of all grievances it receives during the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 academic years that allege sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The school on Thursday said it has already established a Title IX office and appointed its full-time coordinator, created and offered Title IX training programs and developed a notice of nondiscrimination.

“MSU has cooperated fully with the Office of Civil Rights, and through this process the campus has implemented a number of new programs and initiatives to ensure the safest and best teaching and learning atmosphere possible for all of our students, faculty, and staff,” Shirley said in a statement.