The Department of Justice has for months been investigating how Utah State University responds to reports of sexual assault.
In a January letter released by USU on Tuesday, the department’s civil rights division said it had learned of allegations regarding how the school has handled ”numerous reports of student-on-student sexual assault.” The department said its investigation was focusing on cases between 2013 and 2016.
The inquiry is different — and more serious — than the reviews federal education officials are overseeing at hundreds of colleges across the country, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC.
The scope of a DOJ investigation is usually much larger, as the department typically looks at ”more systemic issues across an entire community,” he said.
USU did not immediately release an enclosure in the letter that listed the documents requested by the department. While it isn’t clear what allegations or cases the DOJ is examining, three USU students have been charged or convicted in high-profile sexual assaults alleged to have occurred between 2013 and 2015.
In the case of former football player Torrey Green, four women told Logan police in 2015 that they had been assaulted by Green, but no charges were filed and he was not questioned about two of the reports. After The Salt Lake Tribune reported the complaints, other alleged victims came forward, and Green is now charged in seven assaults. He has denied the allegations.
USU’s internal investigation revealed that the school “fell short” in handling reports related to Green — at least three women said they reported him to the school — but it has refused to detail those shortcomings or release its inquiry, citing student privacy protections. Green has told The Tribune the school talked to him about one incident, which he did not specify.
An attorney for former USU student Victoria Hewlett, who has sued the school for allegedly mishandling sexual assault allegations against two other students, said she is cooperating with the DOJ investigation.
University officials said in a statement that the school is working with the DOJ’s Educational Opportunities Section as it investigates the university and its Title IX practices. Title IX is a federal law that charges universities with ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination.
“USU is cooperating fully with the review and welcomes the opportunity this will provide as we continue to improve our processes,” spokesman Eric Warren wrote. ”Because this is an ongoing inquiry, it would not be appropriate to discuss details of the review.”
DOJ officials said Tuesday that they could not give details about specific allegations being considered.
According to advocate Turner Bitton, the department is seeking information from people who have had experiences with USU’s Title IX office, inviting them to call (202)-616-2540 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA), said the organization became involved with the DOJ review at USU in recent weeks. He said the coalition has been connecting investigators with people.
“We’re obviously hopeful folks will participate,” he said. “Oftentimes, people view these investigations as a punishment or a finding of a shortfall. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s a fact-finding investigation. The more people who participate, the better it will be for everyone.”
He added that if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable reaching out directly to the Department of Justice, they can contact UCASA. “We can help facilitate some different mechanisms to protect their privacy,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education has more than 300 Title IX reviews underway nationwide, Carter said, but there are few Title IX investigations by Justice officials.
“This would be the only one under investigation that I am currently aware of,” Carter said. ”It is much more rare and far, far more serious.”
A DOJ investigation at the University of Montana extended into the criminal justice system and led to a community-wide audit. In 2015, the department said the Missoula police department had completed “historic” changes to improve its response to sexual assault, including training and a review process for cases that were not pursued.
It’s not clear how far-reaching the investigation in Utah will be. Cache County Attorney James Swink said he hasn’t heard from anyone about the investigation, and Logan police also said they are not involved with the process.
Hewlett was sexually assaulted by former USU student Jason Relopez in 2015. He was sentenced in 2016 to a year in jail for attempted rape and attempted forcible sex abuse, and as part of his plea deal, admitted raping Hewlett and another USU student.
Hewlett’s lawsuit contends USU mishandled complaints about both Relopez and Ryan Wray, a former president of Pi Kappa Alpha charged in a separate assault. Prosecutors said Wray inappropriately touched a woman at the fraternity in 2014, while he was assigned to keep watch over partygoers who couldn’t take care of themselves. He pleaded guilty to attempted forcible sex abuse and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Jeffrey Eisenberg, Hewlett’s attorney, said she wants to bring attention to underreported sexual assaults on campuses and to the peer pressure and retaliation that can occur when an assault is reported.
She filed suit “to not only bring attention to [the handling of her case,] but so other students who are the victims of sexual assault will see an example of someone who has challenged this through the legal system,” he said.
The Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but Hewlett has agreed to the use of her name.
USU has asked for Hewlett’s lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that school officials did not violate her rights.
Five other Utah universities are being evaluated by the Department of Education for potential Title IX violations: Westminster College, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Dixie State University and Utah Valley University.
Bitton said the coalition is not involved in any of the other Title IX reviews pending in the state, but noted a DOJ investigation “looks different” than a typical review.