Feds: 2 W.Va. colleges probed over sexual-assault cases

Two West Virginia colleges are under federal investigation for possibly mishandling sexual-assault cases.

Bethany College, in the Northern Panhandle, and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, are two of 55 schools in the country on a list released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The schools on the list are being investigated for possible violations of Title IX — a law that prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

The list, which is to be regularly updated, has never been made public before. It’s the latest push by the Obama administration to publicize rape cases occurring on college campuses and school administrators’ handling of them. One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Department of Justice.

Other schools on the list include Harvard, the University of Southern California, Florida State University and Ohio State University.

The list has no correlation to the number of sexual-assault complaints on a campus — only the school’s potential mishandling of them — and a college’s appearance on the list does not mean it has violated the law.

In fall 2012, the School of Osteopathic Medicine — one of the state’s three medical schools — received a student’s report of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred off-campus. The school is conducting an internal investigation, WVSOM spokeswoman Denise Getson said Thursday.

Getson said the school is “cooperating fully with the Office of Civil Rights investigation of whether a Title IX infraction occurred.”

Rebecca Rose, director of communications for Bethany College, a private, Christian-affiliated school, said administrators were notified of the Department of Education’s investigation earlier this week and that it’s based on an alleged sexual assault reported on campus this fall.

“Upon the assault being reported to the college, law enforcement was immediately contacted by college personnel. At that time, law enforcement launched an investigation that ran concurrent to the internal student conduct investigation that the college initiated,” Rose said via email.

The matter also was investigated by local and state police and taken to court in Brooke County, but there was no indictment, Rose said.

“The College always reserves the right to reopen any investigation if new evidence is provided. Because the safety of our students is our priority, we take any allegations of sexual assault very seriously,” she said.

Nikki Godfrey, campus project coordinator for the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, said it’s crucial for college administrators to abide by laws like Title IX and the Clery Act — which requires schools that receive federal funding to disclose information about campus crime — but it’s also complicated.

“It’s a big process. It’s a big learning curve, and we know that it is a huge issue on college campuses. So it’s a challenge,” Godfrey said. “We work with the campuses to help develop stronger policies and protocols in addressing sexual assault to provide a fair process for individuals, but also to make sure we’re meeting the needs of victims on campuses.”

The organization is assisting in a statewide Title IX training session for the colleges next week, sponsored by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“The campuses have a huge job making sure they meet all their requirements under Title IX and that they outline the rights of victims while also making sure that they provide fair and equal investigations for both individuals,” Godfrey said.

For example, colleges should implement a “two-click rule,” which means students can find information on how to report sexual assault on a university’s website within two clicks of the mouse, Godfrey said.

WV FRIS is a state sexual-assault coalition established in the 1980s and composed of nine rape crisis centers.

Godfrey said that while the national push is needed, she’s confident in the state’s focus on sexual assault. The West Virginia Intercollegiate Council on Sexual Violence was formed more than a decade ago and has created material available on campuses and provides quarterly forums on policies and prevention.

“I like to think that we have a really good relationship with our campuses in West Virginia,” she said. “We really work with them to address any issues they have.”

For more information, visit www.fris.org or the White House’s recently launched website, www.notalone.gov.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or at 304-348-4814.

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