Westminster College cleared of wrongdoing in handling of sexual assault report

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Students walk through the commons past Converse Hall on the Westminster College campus.

Westminster College has been cleared of allegations that it mishandled a sexual assault complaint filed by a female student, but the federal scrutiny has spurred changes in policies and increased training at the private school.

The college had been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) since 2014. The department’s letter closing the case was released by school Tuesday.

The woman, a sophomore during the 2013-2014 school year, alleged that a male classmate had sexually assaulted her in September 2013, according to OCR. She reported the incident to Westminster in March 2014, and after an investigation, the school found there was insufficient evidence of an assault. An appeals panel upheld that finding.

The woman filed a Title IX complaint with OCR in November 2014, alleging the school had discriminated against her. She contended that the school “did not fully consider evidence that she had consumed alcohol” and had lacked the ability to consent.

Under Title IX, schools have an obligation to swiftly investigate reports of sexual violence. They must also provide services to individuals who report discrimination or violence — including counseling, help with school work or housing changes — if requested.

According to a Sept. 29 letter sent to the Salt Lake City college, federal authorities determined there was “insufficient evidence” showing the college discriminated against the woman. The investigator and counsel assigned to the case “made a good faith effort” to determine each student’s level of intoxication and ability to consent, OCR said, asking about their memories, what they had eaten and how much they drank.

“Although the College ultimately reached a factual finding that the Complainant disagreed with, our investigation established that it appropriately investigated the complaint and considered the Complainant’s position along with the other evidence,” the OCR letter said.

OCR did find gaps in Westminster’s Title IX policies, such as the lack of clear time frames for an investigation. But those problems were fixed in new policies adopted in April 2017, it said.

In a Tuesday news release, Westminster officials pointed to additional changes and updates they’ve made as a result of the OCR review. First-year students now must complete online Title IX training, new students must complete bystander-awareness training and other sexual violence awareness campaigns have been implemented across campus.

“Westminster and all colleges throughout the nation can always do more to prevent sexual violence,” Westminster president Stephen Morgan said in the statement. “The safety and security of our students is a top priority, and we will continue to improve our processes and confront incidents of sexual violence head-on.”

The female student said she had met the male student at his off-campus apartment on Sept. 6, 2013, to “relax after dealing with a particularly stressful classmate.”

The two students drank alcohol together, according to the OCR letter, and she later said he sexually assaulted her. The woman made a report to Salt Lake City police in February 2014, the letter said, but no investigation was initiated and the man was not charged with any crime.

A month later, the female student reported the incident to the school’s Title IX coordinator. Because the woman had a “work history” with the Title IX coordinator, an outside counsel and an investigator were assigned, according to the letter.

OCR determined that what followed was a “prompt and thorough investigation.” The college avoided potential bias by retaining the independent investigator and attorney, it said. Witnesses were interviewed, and the parties were allowed an equal opportunity to present evidence. A final determination, including an appeal, was reached within 68 days — a reasonable time frame, OCR concluded.

“Additionally, the college took interim steps to avoid further harassment, offered counseling and victim’s advocacy resources,” the letter reads.

The findings and conclusion are among the first to become public since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked previous Title IX guidelines about two weeks ago, according to S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Education Campuses, LLC.

The new rules, while incomplete, provide greater flexibility to colleges and universities than those outlined in a 2011 memo known as the “Dear Colleague Letter.” They also emphasize the due-process rights of accused students.

With hundreds of Title IX investigations open, Carter said, cases are starting to stack up. A three-year wait for a conclusion, like in the case involving Westminster, is not out of the ordinary.

Carter noted that while the letter to Westminster had more detail than cases he’s seen in the past, there were few details about how school officials determined whether the students were incapacitated by alcohol. Without that, he said, he could not give an opinion on the OCR’s conclusions.

Westminster noted it is the first Utah college to receive a letter of finding from OCR regarding a Title IX complaint. It was one of five Utah universities being evaluated by the Department of Education for potential violations.

The University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Dixie State University and Utah Valley University still have pending reviews. Utah State University is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for how it has responded to several reports of sexual assaults between 2013 and 2016.