Monday, July 6, 2015

Feds launch investigation into Swarthmore's handling of sex assaults

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Swarthmore for its handling of sexual assaults.

Feds launch investigation into Swarthmore's handling of sex assaults

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Hope Brinn (left) and Mia Ferguson at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Delaware County, on Tuesday, May 7, 2013. The two sophomore students sparked a federal complaint against the college for under-reporting or downplaying cases of sexual assault.  (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Hope Brinn (left) and Mia Ferguson at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Delaware County, on Tuesday, May 7, 2013. The two sophomore students sparked a federal complaint against the college for under-reporting or downplaying cases of sexual assault. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether Swarthmore College violated federal regulations in its handling of sexual harassment and assault cases on the 1,545-student, Delaware County campus.

Student complainants Mia Ferguson, an engineering major from Cambridge, Mass., and Hope Brinn, an educational studies and sociology/anthropology major from Wilmington, received a letter from the department’s Office of Civil Rights last week confirming the probe.

“We will investigate these allegations above because OCR has jurisdiction and the allegations were filed timely,” the office’s Rhasheda S. Douglas, team leader, wrote in a July 12 letter to the women.

The office, she wrote, will serve as a “neutral fact finder” in the investigation process, she wrote. “Please note that investigating an allegation in no way implies that OCR has decided its merit,” Douglas wrote.

The education department also in the last year has opened investigations at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The case at Swarthmore is part of a growing national movement in which young women are speaking out about their colleges’ handling of sexual assaults.

Ferguson and Brinn, both rising juniors, and others filed the complaint in May, alleging that Swarthmore violated federal regulations known as Title IX, which prohibit sexual discrimination. The college, the women said, created a sexually hostile environment by failing to handle the cases appropriately. They also accused the college of retaliating against Brinn for reporting she was a victim of sexual harassment and violence. A senior resident advisor told other students she was assaulted, according to the complaint.

Ferguson also reported that she was raped her freshman year and received little support from the college.

The women also filed a second complaint with the education department that accused Swarthmore of violating the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges to report crime in a timely way. Clery investigations are handled by the department’s student aid office. The department did not offer immediate comment on Tuesday on whether it is investigating that complaint.

Reached by phone, Ferguson said she was pleased the department has taken up the Title IX complaint.

“For us, having Swarthmore investigated is validation,” she said. “It’s a relief, for sure.”

Swarthmore College said it welcomed the review.

“We will, of course, cooperate fully and expeditiously,” said Nancy Nicely, secretary of the college and vice president for communications.

The college in April hired an outside consultant, Margolis, Healy & Associates, to review its policies, practices, and programs regarding the handling of sexual assault. The college said last month that it expected recommendations some time in July.

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