New York’s public university system, in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, has resolved to improve the way it handles reports of sexual violence and harassment on its 29 state-operated campuses.
The changes announced Thursday follow a three-year compliance review by the federal department’s civil rights office, which found some instances of the State University of New York not handling sexual complaints properly according to federal Title IX requirements.
The voluntary resolution “marks an important step forward for student and staff safety throughout SUNY state-operated campuses,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of civil rights at the Education Department, told reporters during a conference call.
The action was not triggered by a specific complaint, the department said, but undertaken because SUNY is the nation’s largest public higher education system, with nearly 219,000 students and 70,000 staff members.
Investigators examined policies across the system in addition to conducting on-site visits to four campuses: the University at Albany, Buffalo State College, SUNY Morrisville and SUNY New Paltz, where they analyzed all of the 159 complaints received between 2007 and 2011.
“OCR determined that the vast majority of these cases involved reports of sexual assault or violence sufficiently serious to create a sexually hostile environment for the affected students,” the report said.
Title IX requires campuses to respond immediately to such cases, but the review found instances of complaints not being investigated quickly or thoroughly enough and cases where complainants did not receive notice of the outcomes, according to the civil rights office’s 23-page report to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.
Not all campuses had designated a required Title IX compliance officer, or properly publicized nondiscrimination policies, the report said.
The resolution agreement standardizes policy across all campuses, requiring that SUNY conduct investigations promptly, rather than wait for the conclusion of criminal investigations, and provide support for complainants during investigations.
The agreement also ensures a mechanism for reporting complaints at any time of day or night, annual reviews of all complaints on each campus in an effort to detect patterns, and training for staff and students in how to recognize and respond to sexual harassment.
“The successful culmination of this review affirms and recognizes that SUNY campuses across New York are now national models for Title IX compliance and training,” SUNY spokesman David Doyle said.
Lhamon praised SUNY administrators for collaborating in the investigation and adopting interim fixes along the way.
“This is an enormously significant issue for us across the nation,” Lhamon said, “and we hope that all university systems are evaluating their policies and procedures with respect to sexually hostile environments on campus.”