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5 things to know about campus sexual assault probe

Friday - 5/2/2014, 12:52pm  ET

FILE - This April 2, 2014 file photo shows Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Education Department on Thursday took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of the 55 colleges and universities currently facing a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual abuse complaints. The release came two days after a White House task force promised greater government transparency on sexual assault in higher education. Going forward, the department said, it will keep an updated list of schools facing such an investigation and make it available upon request. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have said non-compliance under the law is "far too common." They say a lack of federal resources is partly to blame for that, and they've sought more money to ensure timely and proper investigations. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

KIMBERLY HEFLING
AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's a list that no college or university wants to be on.

The Education Department on Thursday revealed the names of 55 colleges and universities facing a Title IX investigation for their responses to sexual abuse and violence on their campuses.

Making the list public was unprecedented, a move fueled by the department's hope that transparency will compel colleges and universities to act to better prevent the crimes and protect victims. Previously, the agency would confirm such investigations when asked, but students and others were often unaware of them.

The schools range from huge public universities, including Ohio State, the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State, to private schools such as Knox College in Illinois, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. Ivy League schools Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth are also on the list.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there is no presumption of guilt. While being on the list might be difficult for schools, he said it pales in comparison to the trauma borne by sexual assault victims.

"In terms of what's morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that," Duncan said.

Here are five things to know about the department's actions.

TITLE IX

The 1972 law prohibits gender discrimination at schools. It is best known for guaranteeing girls equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them. The department publicized guidance on Title IX's sexual assault provisions in 2011, and complaints by students have since increased. The department can withhold federal funding from a school that doesn't comply with the law, but it so far has not used that power and instead has negotiated voluntary resolutions for violators.

WHY RELEASE THE LIST

Highly engaged victims groups have used social media and other means to build support for government action against schools that they believe have not dealt firmly enough with reports of sexual abuse and violence on campus or provided resources to help those who were injured.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a White House task force would review the issue over a 90-day period. At the time, the White House cited a statistic that 1 in 5 female college students is sexually assaulted. In findings released Tuesday, the task force promised greater transparency, including the creation of a website called notalone.gov with resources about how to file such a complaint.

The next step was releasing the list of schools under investigation. That happened Thursday.

"No one probably loves to have their name on that list," Duncan said. "But we'll investigate; we'll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we'll be very loud and clear that they've done everything perfectly."

WHO INVESTIGATES

The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is responsible for investigating accusations of Title IX violations. An investigation may be triggered by individual complaints about the handling of sexual abuse cases or by a review of whether the school is complying with the law. That review may be prompted by factors such as a news story, the department said.

Complaints, however, don't always lead to an investigation.

WHAT SCHOOLS ARE SAYING

Colleges named in many cases were reluctant to reveal details related to the investigation, but many describe changes in policy and a willingness to work with the department to bring change. A spokesman for Harvard College, for example, said it had made changes such as appointing a Title IX officer to review policies and procedures. At Sarah Lawrence College, a heavily female school in New York on the list, a spokeswoman said the college has taken steps that include putting up posters advising students of what to do if they are sexually assaulted and requiring a "consent and respect online" course for new students starting this summer.

Some schools emphasized that the investigation was the result of the compliance review -- and not a specific complaint.

Indiana University-Bloomington, for example, said the department had confirmed that it didn't receive any complaints against the school "that would have triggered an investigation."

Similarly, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst also said it was being investigated under a standard compliance review and not because of any specific complaints.

THE NEXT STEP

The department says it will continue to update the list and will make it available to members of the public who ask.

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