U. of C. sex assault opens federal investigation

By LINDSAY WELBERS
Staff Writer

The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) began formally investigating the University of Chicago after a student’s complaint it mishandled her sexual assault case and violated her Title IX rights.

Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 to the Civil Rights Act prohibits sex-based discrimination in all education programs or activities that receive financial assistance.

OCR accepted the complaint for investigation last June. Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the OCR, said investigations usually wrap up within six months, “although some take longer due to the complexity of the issue involved.”

During finals week in the spring of 2012, Olivia Ortiz reported to the dean of students that she had been in an abusive relationship and sexually assaulted by her then-boyfriend, a fourth year. She was not told that sexual misconduct cases do not have a statute of limitations according to university policy and she did not have to make a decision regarding her course of action immediately.

“I thought I had to make a decision immediately, so I was offered and encouraged to take this informal mediation with my assailant with the dean of students,” Ortiz said. “I was a second-year so I was fairly young and I didn’t realize that [informal mediation] wasn’t allowed A. under the law and B. under the university’s policy on sexual assault.”

She described the mediation as “an incredibly painful process.”

“It seemed like it was more placating me rather than an actual disciplinary process. I felt characterized as someone who just needed to go through their emotions,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz later sought help through the college’s counseling service. She said her counselor at one point used language that she felt put the blame on her for being in a situation where an assault could occur.

In February of 2013 Ortiz sought legal counsel with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Her lawyer encouraged her to file a complaint with OCR against the university, claiming it had incorrectly handled disciplinary procedures after she was sexually assaulted and violated her rights under Title IX of Education Amendment of 1972 to the Civil Rights Act.

After a preliminary investigation of Ortiz’s complaint the OCR expanded their investigation campus-wide.

In mid-January of 2014, the OCR had asked to review certain university records, interview staff members and speak with “selected focus groups of students to discuss their experiences with the university’s policies and practices regarding sexual misconduct,” Jeremy Manier, university news director, said. “Building on a history of productive collaboration with the OCR, the university has made every effort to comply with the spirit and letter of this inquiry, and will incorporate any OCR findings into its ongoing efforts to provide for the best possible campus climate.”

Veronica Heap, a third-year student and director of the UChicago Clothesline Project, a student-led organization that works with sexual assault survivors, said there is a need for a campus-wide change regarding how sexual assault and consent are understood.

Support and prevention resources available on campus can be difficult to find or lacking for vulnerable groups. For example, most campus peer support groups only permit women, which leaves a gap in resources available to men or transgender students who have been victims of sexual assault or abuse.

She is also concerned that the university’s specific policies, resources, information about what a student’s rights and what can be expected from a disciplinary process are not available in one central location online.

The university also began re-evaluating its disciplinary procedures for cases of sexual misconduct and unlawful harassment and discrimination on Feb. 6.

Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and Karen Warren Coleman, vice president for campus life and student services, issued a joint statement saying the “modifications under consideration reflect the experiences and advice of student advocates, faculty who sit on disciplinary committees, and deans, who have highlighted the need for special expertise in cases of sexual misconduct and discrimination, and called for University-wide procedures.”

The modifications would create a full-time position for a dedicated specialist who would work under the dean of students; previously this was a part-time position. It would also create a university-wide disciplinary committee that has specific preparations in place. These roles would be in place by July 1, Rosenbaum and Coleman said.

In the statement Rosenbaum and Coleman said the process of modifying the disciplinary process has been underway “for several months.”

The university most recently evaluated its student disciplinary structures in 2006, 2010 and 2011.
If Ortiz could go back and change the way her assault was handled she doesn’t know exactly what changes she would have made.

“I would have probably preferred to be assured that I didn’t have to make a decision then and there. I’m not sure what I would have chosen, given more time and more constructive support from the counseling office,” Ortiz said.

She is now a fourth-year linguistics major. She is currently taking a quarter off but has been appointed to a student advisory board with resources to work on sexual violence prevention on campus and emergency student response systems.

“I really appreciate the fact that campus climate is changing,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz plans to attend law school after she graduates from the college and continue her work with sexual violence prevention and advocating for victims.

l.welbers@hpherald.com