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Frostburg’s sexual assault response faulted by feds

Frostburg State University failed to appropriately respond to students’ claims of sexual assault, violating federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday.

Frostburg State University officials did not agree with the federal department’s conclusions but said the school has strengthened its procedures for responding to claims of sexual assault. (File photo)

Frostburg State University officials did not agree with the federal department’s conclusions but said the school has strengthened its procedures for responding to claims of sexual assault. (File photo)

University officials agreed to make several changes recommended by the department, but wrote in a news release that the university was not acknowledging that it had not complied with the law, known as Title IX.

Frostburg was one of more than 200 institutions facing Title IX sexual assault investigations. Maryland schools with active investigations include Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, Mount St. Mary’s University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Two Frostburg students filed complaints with the department’s Office of Civil Rights, one alleging that the university failed to provide a “prompt and equitable” response after she reported being raped at an off-campus party in 2013, the other claiming a similar lack of appropriate action after she reported she was sexually assaulted by a campus police officer in a campus safety vehicle in 2009, according to the federal department.

The Office of Civil Rights reviewed documents provided by the two women as well as documentation for all student “complaints or reports of sexual harassment or sexual violence” between January 2010 and November 2014, according to a Sept. 9 letter from the office to FSU President Ronald Nowaczyk, who took office earlier this year.

The office faulted the school on several points, including not conducting its own Title IX investigation in some cases; relying on campus or local police instead; halting some investigations at the request of victims without adequately weighing the victims’ desire for confidentiality with the need to keep the campus community safe; and not investigating incidents that occurred off campus or involved non-student victims or perpetrators.

Frostburg officials say they cooperated fully with the Title IX investigation and that the university has taken steps to strengthen its response to sexual assault complaints.

The university hired a full-time Title IX coordinator in January 2015; created an Office of Gender Equity with a full-time staffer responsible for “investigating complaints of gender-based harassment and violence;” set up an online reporting system and anonymous tip line to encourage more reporting of harassment and violence; and updated and clarified its Title IX policies, among other measures, according to a university news release.

Frostburg will also offer to reimburse the complainants for certain costs associated with filing their complaints, and will continue to train its students, faculty and staff in the coming year to properly respond to incidents of sexual misconduct.

Catherine Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary of civil rights, Friday praised Frostburg for its commitment to making these changes. University officials were working to ensure that students would be able to learn in an environment free of sexual violence, Lhamon said.