In January 2013, a handful of sexual assault survivors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided they’d had enough of how the prestigious public school treated rape victims. To fix the problem, they filed a complaint against UNC with the US Department of Education, sparking a federal investigation.
They haven’t heard much from that government agency since then.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has more than 300 investigations open into how colleges handled sexual assault cases. While the agency says it strives to complete these investigations within 180 days, dozens of them, including the one at UNC, have been dragging on for three years or longer. And many of those students who filed complaints in 2013 and 2014 told BuzzFeed News they’ve gone years without any communication with federal officials.
With the investigations languishing, it leaves open the question of whether these schools are properly addressing sexual violence, and it delays reforms that may be ordered if the colleges are botching their responses to rape reports. The office responsible for the investigations is overworked, understaffed, and facing an uncertain future under the Trump administration, which is determined to roll back Obama-era policies and shrink federal bureaucracy. The sexual assault survivors who turned to the federal government for justice are now left wondering when — or if — they’ll see the outcomes of these investigations.
“They could just let them sit forever,” said one official who worked on OCR’s enforcement, noting that the agency doesn’t actually have deadlines to close the 311 current cases open at 227 campuses.
“Most people who do file a complaint while they’re in school will most likely either transfer, graduate, or drop out before their complaint is resolved,” Annie Clark, executive director of End Rape On Campus.
Clark is one of those people. She and Andrea Pino were among the group that filed the UNC complaint. The last time they heard from OCR was in 2013, when they declined a deal to cut off the investigation early if UNC agreed at that point to make reforms to its sexual assault policies.
“This is regular for a lot of complainants,” said Pino, who co-founded End Rape On Campus with Clark. “It’s a shame.”
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