Feds investigating Baylor for handling of sexual assault

A fan looks on as Baylor and Northwestern State play Sept. 2 in Waco. Baylor University regents left a meeting Friday saying they were committed to improving transparency in the wake of the football program sexual assault scandal but offered no specifics.
A fan looks on as Baylor and Northwestern State play Sept. 2 in Waco. Baylor University regents left a meeting Friday saying they were committed to improving transparency in the wake of the football program sexual assault scandal but offered no specifics. The Associated Press

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating Baylor University for its handling of sexual violence on campus, the department confirmed Wednesday to The Texas Tribune.

The investigation comes after more than a year of scandal at the university over its response to allegations of sexual assault by students, especially football players. Multiple rape victims have reported that their cases were ignored or mishandled by university officials, including some cases involving accusations of rape against football players.

Universities are required by federal law to investigate whenever a student makes an allegation of sexual assault against another student or a university employee. That investigation is supposed to run parallel to any criminal investigation. If the university concludes that it is more likely than not that an assault occurred, the school is required to take action even if criminal charges aren’t filed.

The Education Department has been aggressive in investigating schools for violating Title IX in that regard. Right now, 281 sexual violence cases are under investigation by the department; 10 involve Texas schools. The department usually doesn’t make public what exactly it is investigating. In at least one case — at Texas A&M University — the department appears to be looking into whether the university went too far in punishing a student who was accused of sexual assault, according to public records.

In an unusual step, however, the department identified what prompted its investigation into Baylor.

“OCR opened the investigation after receiving a complaint from the former Baylor Title IX coordinator,” the department said in a statement. “Consistent with federal privacy statutes, OCR typically does not identify the specific parties, including complainants, involved in our civil rights cases. In this instance, the complainant has given permission for OCR to identify her and has spoken publicly about her complaint.”

That Title IX coordinator is Patty Crawford, who left the school this month. She has publicly alleged that the university has prevented her from doing her job adequately. In an interview with CBS soon after she left, she said Baylor officials were concerned with “protecting the brand” instead of students.

“I continued to work hard, and the harder I worked, the more resistance I received from senior leadership,” she said.

The investigation is just the latest step in the continued fallout at Baylor since last August 2015, when football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of raping another student. During the trial, it was revealed that Baylor investigated the allegations against Ukwuachu but took little action other than suspending him from the football team while his trial was pending. Soon after, other similar cases came to light.

The university hired the law firm Pepper Hamilton to review the allegations. It released a scathing report that included claims that Baylor “failed to consistently support” students who reported sexual assault and “failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community.”

The report said that administrators at times intervened in sexual violence complaints and that coaches met with victims who made allegations against football players but didn’t pass those allegations on to anyone outside the athletic department.

Football coach Art Briles and university President Ken Starr were both ousted soon after the report was made public.

The university has also been sued by multiple current and former students who say they were assaulted on or off campus and didn’t receive sufficient support from the university. The Education Department expects schools to accommodate victims as much as possible to make sure they can complete their schooling.

Now, the department will likely reach out to the school and request documents and other records detailing how it handled those cases. Investigations can drag on for years — some open cases date to 2013 — and the department has the power to cut off federal funding to universities, a potentially crippling blow to schools that collect millions of tuition dollars from students who receive federal grants and loans. The department has never taken that drastic step, however. It does frequently enter into agreements in which the universities promise to change their procedures.

Baylor University officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.