Bascom Hill on UW-Madison campus.

The instigation of a new probe last month means the University of Wisconsin-Madison is under federal investigation for its handling of three sexual violence cases, among the highest for any college campus in the nation.

The Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation of UW-Madison on Nov. 18. This follows investigations opened on Feb. 24 and Aug. 12.

UW-Madison is among 159 college and university campuses across the country — including UW-Whitewater — under investigation for possible Title IX violations in connection with 194 sexual violence cases. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.

Only three campuses had more open investigations than UW-Madison as of Dec. 16 with four each, according to the Office of Civil Rights: Stanford University, Kansas State University and Saint Mary’s College of Maryland. The office began publishing the names of schools under investigation for Title IX violations in 2014 in an effort to bring more transparency to the issue of sexual assault on campus.

Neither the Office of Civil Rights nor UW-Madison would release any details about the cases under investigation.

UW-Madison officials in September unveiled results of a survey that found that 1 in 4 female undergraduate students reported experiencing sex assault during their career on campus. The results prompted officials to commit to changing the climate on campus that leads to such a high incidence of assault.

But campus statistics on handling of sexual assault reports show that few cases are investigated and that suspension or expulsion of students found responsible for sexual assault is rare. That’s why relatively few UW-Madison survivors of sexual assault report the attacks to university officials, says the head of a student organization against sexual violence.

In calendar years 2011 through 2013, when the number of sexual assault reports was stable at just over 120 annually, the Office of the Dean of Students launched full investigations on some 10 percent to 12 percent of cases each year.

In 2014, sexual assault reports jumped to 172; 13 percent were investigated. The increase in reports continued in 2015, when 203 were disclosed through Dec. 4, but only 5 percent were investigated.

In the 67 cases investigated over the past five years, 27 students were found responsible. (Investigations are still in progress in four 2015 cases.) Three of those 27 students found responsible for sexual assault over the past five years were expelled. 

“What does that say?” asked Sophie Nielsen, chair of PAVE, Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a student advocacy group on the UW-Madison campus. “I see it as a lack of follow-through. It’s irresponsible to encourage students to disclose when nothing is resolved from it. The lack of expulsions despite the increase in disclosures speaks volumes.”

The Dean of Students Office, which investigates reports for possible discipline, cites circumstances in which reports can’t be followed up on, including when a report is made to a confidential resource like University Health Services or when the name of the alleged assailant is not disclosed.

In addition, the reports included in the office’s statistics include sexual assaults that have occurred much earlier in the student’s life or in circumstances far removed from the campus.

Assistant Dean Tonya Schmidt decides if individual cases meet the required standard of proof of “preponderance of the evidence" and recommends a sanction. She said that many reported cases involved grabbing of breasts or buttocks, for which probation often is an appropriate consequence. Cases of penetration typically are cases where suspension or expulsion might be appropriate, she said.

But the committee that hears cases for which expulsion is recommended sometimes disagrees that the offense rises to that level, Schmidt said.

Nielsen said she is confident that more cases involving penetration are reported to university officials than the three expulsions over the past five years would suggest.

She’s also confident that the lack of follow-up dissuades students in underrepresented groups especially from reporting sexual assaults.

“There are entire populations of students who would never consider reporting based on their identity — trans individuals or students of color — because there is such a lack of trust,” she said.

Schmidt is aware of the concern over under-reporting. Members of small, underrepresented student groups may fear being shunned for reporting someone in their groups. Other students fear prosecution for underage use of alcohol. And others want to avoid a report to parents, she said. Then there is the general victim-blaming that is pervasive in American culture.

The campus last summer opened an office of Title IX compliance with a dedicated employee who interviews people tied to assault disclosures and sends investigative reports to the dean of students, Schmidt said.

“Up until the survey, people did not even believe this happened on this campus,” Schmidt said. People questioned the validity of estimates that one in five women is sexually assaulted during college, she said. “Actually here it is one in four.”

“These issues have always been here; now they are on a national platform,” she said. “It’s encouraging to have people look at this issue and talk about it.” 

As for the investigations into UW-Madison’s handling of sexual assault reports, a UW-Madison spokesperson pointed to greater awareness as the reason for “a significant increase in Title IX claims across the country.”

“We understand how difficult it can be for individuals who experience sexual assault to tell someone about what they’ve experienced,” Meredith McGlone, director of news and media relations, said. ”But there is help available. We encourage such individuals to tell us so we can offer it.”

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