Obama’s budget request comes amid sexual assault investigation backlog

Student activists attend a press conference announcing a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., on May 7, 2015. Feminists United, the group behind the suit, claims the school's administration doesn't take adequate measures to protect women from sexual violence. (Photo: Peter Cihelka /The Free Lance-Star via AP)

President Obama called for a 29 percent increase in funding for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights this week, heeding pleas for more resources from the agency that has recently found itself buried in discrimination complaints and ongoing sexual assault investigations. 

In a proposed budget released Tuesday, Obama requested to boost the OCR’s funding from $107 million to $138 million in 2017. Over the past decade or so, the office, which is tasked with enforcing laws against discrimination of all kinds in educational programs, including Title IX, has watched its workload double while it’s resources have remained the same.

In addition to the 200 investigations the OCR currently has open into the sexual assault policies — or lack thereof — of 162 different colleges and universities, the office has also received an influx of complaints of race, gender, and disability discrimination as well as sexual assault and harassment, from students of all ages.

In March 2015, Catherine Lhamon, the DOE’s assistant secretary for civil rights, asked the White House for a budget increase so the office could hire 200 new investigators — in addition to its existing staff of 554 — to tackle the volume of unresolved cases that have piled up amid a flood of complaints.

According to the OCR’s 2015 budget request (PDF), the office received a record 9,989 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2014 alone — a significant increase from 6,364 received in 2009. Not every grievance warrants an investigation, but without enough employees to both field incoming complaints and promptly investigate existing cases, the office has wound up with a logjam of pending cases that leave students waiting for years.

This staggering new workload is linked, at least in part, to guidance issued by the OCR in 2011, which reminded students and administrators of the obligation that all schools have — from kindergarten through college — to enforce Title IX and, in particular, to ensure that sexual assault and harassment do not interfere with any student's educational experience.

Part of that guidance, known as the Dear Colleague Letter, implemented a new, lower standard of evidence under which schools were now required to investigate and resolve sexual assault cases.

This not only encouraged more students to report incidents of sexual assault on campus but, as a result, revealed systemic problems with many schools’ sexual assault policies.

“This issue [campus sexual assault] itself is not a new one [and] the law is not new,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Title IX has been around over 40 years and it hasn’t changed.”

What has changed, however, is the public’s awareness of the issue.

“There has been more attention being paid to sexual assault in recent years, in large part due to student activists who made it their mission to educate others about the law and speak up about their experiences,” Chaudhry said.

Sexual assault may not always be dominating daily headlines, but the issue is hardly going away any time soon. Just last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study finding that, during the most recent school year, 10.3 percent of female undergraduates reported being the victim of a sexual assault. 

But while the spotlight has been on campus rape recently, Chaudhry noted that “sexual assault is not limited to college campuses, it occurs at all levels of education and Title IX covers it equally.” She said her office has represented several young women in high school and middle school.

Chaudhry lauds activists for encouraging more students to demand action from their schools in response to sexual violence, but others argue that the pileup of open cases at the OCR is indicative of a problem that extends beyond budgetary constraints.

“That so many students would rather report rape to a school administrator than a police officer is a sign of how badly the criminal justice system has failed rape victims, and how law enforcement must earn back their trust,” said Meaghan Ybos, executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws, a Memphis-based advocacy nonprofit that monitors law enforcement responses to sexual violence and helps connect victims to information about their rights.

Ybos’ activism is motivated by her own personal experience, not only as a survivor of rape but as a victim of Memphis’s so-called rape kit backlog which allowed the physical evidence of her assault — and more than 12,000 others — to go untested for nearly 10 years while her attacker roamed free.

Ybos said she finds it disconcerting that the Department of Education seems to have accumulated a backlog of it’s own, especially considering the fact that sexual assault is just one of several issues the OCR covers.

Even with increased funding to help the OCR close more of its open investigations and better enforce Title IX, Ybos argued, “school discipline should not be a substitute for the criminal justice system.”