Daily Egyptian

SIU under U.S. Department of Education investigation for handling of sexual assault cases

By Luke Nozicka, @lukenozicka

The federal government is investigating SIU after complaints about its handling of two sexual assault cases. In one of the cases, the university overturned its ruling against an alleged assailant because the time limit for reporting the incident had passed.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began its investigations on Sept. 4 and Dec. 14 into how the university examined the separate incidents of reported sexual violence, according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesman.

The September investigation came after the university mishandled a 2013 sexual assault of an SIU student by the name of Eva, her attorney told the Daily Egyptian.

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In October 2013, Eva was sexually assaulted by a male student — someone she considered a friend at the time, said Cari Simon, a lawyer who represents Eva and other survivors at the Fierberg National Law Group in Washington, D.C. The Daily Egyptian is withholding Eva’s last name at her request.

Eva, who graduated from the university in May 2015, chose to not report the assault; rather, she focused on finishing her courses and graduating. She confided in a friend — telling her about what she describes as the worst day of her life. The friend then reported it to the university on Aug. 19, 2014, Simon said.

About a year after the assault — in October 2014 — the university emailed Eva and the accused assailant stating it had opened a sexual assault investigation, something Simon said SIU should not have done without Eva’s knowledge or consent. However, the Department of Education says universities are required to investigate cases even when victims disagree. Title IX Coordinator Casey Parker said SIU will open an investigation, despite the victim asking not to, if the accused assailant poses a health or safety risk to the campus.

“Eva received and read the letter from SIU in shock, over and over again, her heart racing,” Simon said. “She called [the university] frantically and told them she did not report, but somehow got a letter asserting she had.”

She called the university to say she did not want an investigation and found out her alleged assailant had been informed about the investigation at the same time she was, which is university policy.

Regardless, this terrified Eva, her attorney said. She explained to the university that notifying both parties at the same time threatened her safety, warning that one day SIU “would get someone killed,” Simon said.

MORE: Majority of sexual assaults on campus are in student housing

SIU’s investigation of Eva’s case lasted two months, a process she described to Simon as devastating. But on Dec. 1, 2014, the university notified Eva there was enough evidence to find her assailant responsible for sexual assault. SIU suspended him from campus for two years, something Eva considered reasonable, Simon said.

“In determining the appropriate sanction, the factor most influencing my decision is the fact that you sexually assaulted another individual while said individual was unable to give consent,” according to the email a Student Rights and Responsibilities’ hearing officer sent Eva and her assailant. “This behavior is not acceptable in an academic community and, given the severity of the outcome of this violation, I see no alternative but to remove you from the university community at this time.”

Then Eva’s assailant appealed.

On Dec. 9, 2014, Eva received a letter from David DiLalla, associate provost for academic administration, who took over the investigation after then-interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela died Nov. 9, 2014. It said Eva’s accused assailant won his appeal.

Two weeks later, Eva got a letter from SIU President Randy Dunn, who was serving as the campus’ interim chancellor at the time, saying he had upheld the man’s appeal. The accused was never removed from campus.

The accused male won his appeal, according to Eva’s attorney, because Eva’s friend who reported her attack to the university used the wrong date of the assault. The actual date of the assault fell outside SIU’s 180-day statute of limitations.

Eva’s case ended there — her alleged assailant winning the case she did not want investigated in the first place.

MORE: Basketball player’s sexual assault case prompted change in policy | Victim’s choice leading reason for dropped sexual assault claims

Shortly after the university concluded its investigation of Eva’s case, the Student Conduct Code was updated to say SIU’s statute of limitations is 120 days — not 180 as it was in 2014.

Thus, if an SIU student is sexually assaulted today, he or she has until early September to report it to the university if he or she wants it to be investigated. The assault can also be reported to the university if a third party reports it within 120 days of learning about the abuse — meaning if an SIU student is assaulted today and tells a friend, that friend can report it to the university within 120 days of being told.

In Eva’s case, it is unclear when she informed her friend of the alleged assault.

“At a time when schools should be encouraging victims to report and respond appropriately when they do, it is shocking that SIU is limiting the ability to report,” Simon said. “SIU’s arbitrary time limit is dangerously blind to the severity of sexual assault trauma and the victims who need time before they are ready to report.”

SIUC is one of three state public universities — the other two being Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois at Springfield — that have a statute of limitations for students to report sexual misconduct.

The other nine public universities have no statute of limitations for students written into their policies, according to a review of the policies by the Daily Egyptian.

At SIUC for example, Linda McCabe Smith, the university’s associate chancellor for institutional diversity, received “concerns regarding an alleged sexual assault” on Aug. 17, according to documents obtained by the Daily Egyptian through a Freedom of Information Act request. But because the person had not reported the incident to the university within 120 days, SIU did not conduct an investigation.

“As more than 120 days have passed since the date of the alleged incidents and your report of such incidents, a formal investigation will not be conducted into this matter,” according to the Sept. 8 email from McCabe Smith to an alleged victim of a September 2012 assault.

MORE: SIU fails to redact names in sexual assault documents

Citing legal and privacy concerns, SIU cannot confirm the specific cases that are subject of the U.S. Department of Education investigation, and “we cannot respond to questions regarding the details of any individual case,” according to a university statement provided by SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith.

She said SIU is cooperating with the Department of Education’s investigations, noting it “takes all reports and investigations of sexual assault very seriously.”

“Our staff members are well-trained, and we have policies and procedures in place to ensure that all parties in the process are treated fairly and respectfully,” according to the university’s statement. “In addition, we are always assessing our policies and procedures to make sure that they are in compliance with federal law.”

As for Eva’s alleged assailant, her lawyer said in December, he has since graduated with a degree from SIU.

SIU part of a bigger problem 

There are 228 sexual violence cases under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights at 181 postsecondary institutions as of April 27, according to the department’s data.

Eleven of these open cases are at Illinois universities and colleges — three at the University of Chicago, two at Knox College in Galesburg, two at SIUC and one each at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Monmouth College and Judson University in Elgin.

Stanford University, Kansas State University and Saint Mary’s College of Maryland have the most open investigations with four each.

The Department of Education would not disclose “any case-specific facts or details about cases under investigation.”

Investigators of the department’s Office of Civil Rights “gather information through a variety of methods to determine if a school is meeting its obligations to comply with the civil rights laws that OCR enforces.”

“These techniques may include data requests, interviews and site visits,” a department spokesman said in a December email.

Department officials met with students on campus in mid-April to discuss their experiences with the university’s response to sexual harassment and assault.

“[The Office of Civil Rights] analyzes all relevant evidence from the parties involved in the case to develop its findings,” the spokesman said. “At the conclusion of the investigation of all issues, OCR will determine if the evidence supports a conclusion of noncompliance or if the evidence is insufficient.”

The Daily Egyptian is unaware of details of the second case under investigation at SIU.

Kayli Plotner and Anna Spoerre contributed to this report.

Luke Nozicka can be reached at 618-536-3325 or [email protected]

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