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University of Virginia didn't properly investigate sexual violence reports, officials say

University of Virginia didn't properly investigate sexual violence reports, officials say
A protest last year during a meeting on sexual assault at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Ryan M. Kelly / Associated Press)

The University of Virginia failed to properly investigate reports of sexual violence on campus, including allegations of abuse filed against fraternities, on several occasions in recent years, the U.S. Department of Education said Monday.

Federal officials and the university reached a "resolution agreement" on Monday, four years after the Education Department launched a Title IX investigation into the way the school handles reports of sexual violence.

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Although the school updated many of its practices and policies under federal guidance in recent years, the Education Department still found that the campus failed to adequately respond to several alleged instances of sexual assault during the academic years 2008-09 through 2011-12, the department said in a news release.

As of April, more than 100 colleges nationwide are being investigated by the Education Department on suspicion of failing to properly handle sexual assault complaints.

Public scrutiny, however, focused on the University of Virginia when Rolling Stone published an explosive article last year describing a brutal gang rape of a freshman girl inside a campus fraternity house.

The story, titled "A Rape on Campus," was later discredited and retracted. Charlottesville, Va., police said they could find no evidence that the assault of the girl at the center of the piece, who was only identified by the pseudonym Jackie, ever took place.

Alumni of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity have since sued Rolling Stone, alleging defamation.

Still, the federal report supported complaints that UVA struggled to promptly investigate claims of sexual violence on campus.

From 2005 to July 2015, the school had to revise its policy on responding to sexual assaults several times, coming into compliance with federal guidelines only in recent months, the Education Department found. It also found that students who complained of sexual harassment or violence sometimes faced a "hostile environment" at the school.

The school's sexual assault policy for years required that students accused of assault could be found "responsible" for their actions only if they were confronted by "clear and convincing evidence." Federal investigators advised the school to lower the threshold, so a preponderance of the evidence would be sufficient, according to a letter sent to UVA by the Education Department on Monday.

Although the department found several problems with the school's policies, it also praised the university for improving many of its practices during the years-long investigation.

In addition to improving its overall sexual assault policy, the school expanded alcohol education programs and took other measures aimed at reducing the risk of sexual assault on campus. The school also hired someone to develop strategies that seek to reduce sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus, according to the letter.

"By signing the resolution agreement, we have reaffirmed our commitment to continue taking steps we believe to be an important part of effective responses to sexual harassment and assault — urgent and complex societal issues of national importance that are challenging institutions of higher education and beyond," university President Teresa A. Sullivan said in a statement.

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