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Six Massachusetts schools are among 55 colleges nationwide facing federal investigations over their handling of sexual abuse complaints under Title IX, the Education Department revealed Thursday.
The six are Amherst College, Boston University, Emerson College, Harvard College, Harvard University Law School, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The investigations do not imply the schools have violated the law but that an investigation is ongoing, said Catherine Lhamon, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights.
"We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights," Lhamon said, adding that she hopes it will spark dialogue on campuses.
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.
UMass Amherst is being investigated as part of the department's standard compliance review that began in June 2011. Other Massachusetts schools have had formal complaints filed against them by students.
Sarah Tedesco says she is one of six Emerson College students who filed a federal complaint over the school's handling of sexual assault cases.
"I went to an off-campus party and was sexually assaulted by two assailants, one of which was an Emerson student who lived in my dorm and on my floor," Tedesco explained. "I went forward and really wasn't treated in an appropriate way that I thought I would be treated. The school told me that I shouldn't make as big of a deal."
Tedesco welcomes the Department of Education's decision to list schools it's investigating.
"The fact that they're releasing this list really shows how much of a national issue this is," she said.
Emerson says it has hired a director of violence prevention, an advocate for victims of sexual assault and is searching for a coordinator who will ensure the college complies with federal law. It is also hiring a consulting firm to conduct an external review of the college's compliance with the law.
Harvard says it has appointed an officer in charge of making sure the university complies, and that person has since trained coordinators at every Harvard school. The university has developed a new policy that it has submitted to the Department of Education. Harvard President Drew Faust has also appointed a task force made up of faculty, staff and students to recommend how it can better prevent sexual assault.
BU says a student did file a complaint against the school in October. The university says it believes it has provided the student with a prompt and equitable solution of the complaint, but would not comment further citing the investigation.
Amherst College, where two students filed complaints in November, has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Two other New England schools — University of Connecticut and Dartmouth College — are also being investigated.
The Education Department’s decision to release the list is unprecedented and comes as the Obama administration seeks to shed greater transparency on the issue of sexual assault in higher education and how it is being handled.
Going forward, the department said, it will keep an updated list of schools facing such an investigation and make it available upon request.
The agency previously would confirm such an investigation when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there had been “lots of internal debate” about whether to release the list but that he believes in transparency; he said the more the country is talking about the problem of sexual assault, the better. Duncan said there is “absolutely zero presumption” of guilt in his mind for schools being investigated.
“No one probably loves to have their name on that list,” Duncan said during a White House media briefing. “But we’ll investigate; we’ll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we’ll be very loud and clear that they’ve done everything perfectly.”
Duncan said while being on the list might feel difficult for schools, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.
With reporting by WBUR's Fred Thys and The Associated Press.