Students Turn to Feds for Action on Alleged Rapes

PHOTO: Members of USC’s Student Committee Against Rape stage a protest against the college’s alleged mishandling of student rape accusations.
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Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the handling of at least two alleged rapes at the University of Southern California to determine whether the school violated the victims' civil rights by dismissing their claims, the latest in a growing number of similar investigations at colleges across the country.

The U.S. Department of Education confirmed to ABC News it has opened a Title IX sex discrimination investigation after receiving a 107-page complaint containing allegations by more than a dozen USC students who claimed the school did not take appropriate action after reporting sexual abuse to college officials.

One USC student who joined the complaint, junior Ari Mostov, 21, says she was told by campus authorities that her alleged attacker, a fellow screenwriting major with whom she shared all her classes, did not commit a sexual assault because "he didn't orgasm" and that she was told not pursue her case with the LAPD.

"I was told that if I called LAPD, the detectives would be very tough on me and that defense lawyers would call me names in court. The school did everything it could to dissuade me from talking about being raped and asking for help," Mostov told ABCNews.com.

The USC inquest is the latest in a fast-growing string of Title IX investigations launched by the department's Office of Civil Rights following complaints by students across the country that colleges are covering up alleged rapes and intentionally dismissing accusations of sexual assault.

On Wednesday, just two days after the USC investigation was made public, the University of Colorado Boulder's chancellor issued a letter to students and faculty announcing that school too was the subject of a federal investigation.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that historically has been applied to equality in college sports, but which broadly prohibits sex discrimination in education.

A nationwide network of students, many of them still teenagers, have taken to social media to alert victims at other schools that the federal government can provide a final recourse in cases that have left rape survivors feeling victimized by the system for a second time.

Since January, students from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania have filed Title IX complaints.

In the USC case, the students accused the college of misrecording and under-reporting rapes, refusing to expel known attackers, and advising students not to file claims with the police.

USC would not comment on any specific case, but issued a written statement from Jody Shipper, the Title IX coordinator and executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity.

"The university is strongly committed to upholding all aspects of Title IX. We have received a letter from the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education notifying us of a complaint by two USC students alleging Title IX violations. The opening of an investigation is an expected step in the process, and the OCR states that 'opening the allegations for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits.'"

The USC students filed their complaint on May 22.

"These students are victims of rape. They were promised fair, impartial investigations and USC did not provide them," said Tucker Reed, a 23-year-old rising senior who signed the complaint and said she was raped by her then-boyfriend, also a USC student, in 2010. The school, she said, took no disciplinary action against her alleged attacker.

"The school treated us like we didn't matter, like we were statistics, when we were at our most vulnerable. It's extraordinarily cruel to someone in that position," Reed, a theatre major, told ABCNews.com.

"The process made me feel like I had been raped again," she said.

More than 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported, according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice study. But students and advocates across the country say some rapes are buried or misreported by colleges, which must account for all confirmed incidents under federal law.

Under the Clery Act, which requires colleges to make public their crime statistics, USC reported just seven "forcible sex offenses" in 2011 on its main campus, a fraction of the number of alleged attacks students say they brought to the attention of campus authorities.

USC officials said students accused of rape had been expelled from the college in the past, but would not confirm the number of expulsions, citing privacy concerns.

Read USC's statement regarding the federal investigation.

In May, Yale University was fined $165,000 -- one student's admission costs for three years of college -- for violating the Clery Act and underreporting sexual assaults. The fine was for attacks that took place a decade ago, and the school says it has since improved its reporting.

That same month, while their classmates hunkered down to prepare for finals, a group of USC seniors met in Reed's off-campus apartment to draft their complaint to the Department of Education.

Reed had gone public with her case several months earlier, making public her name and her attacker's name in a blog. The blog also included the transcripts of four audio recordings she provided to college adjudicators, in which she claimed her alleged attacker confessed to the assault.

Local police did not pursue Reed's case, citing insufficient evidence. LAPD confirmed it had investigated but would not comment on the details of the case.

Reed said the school's Student Judicial Affairs and Standards Committee, which adjudicates violations from plagiarism to rape, assigned two faculty members to hear her case.

The panel told her that despite submitting the taped confessions, her case did not "meet the preponderance of evidence threshold" and her attacker would not be expelled because the school's mission was to be "educative and not punitive," she said.

The blog went viral and dozens of students reached out to Reed with their own stories.

One of those students was Alexa Schwartz, 21, who said she was raped in 2010. The two founded a campus group, the Student Coalition Against Rape, and collected the stories of other victims.

A group of five students met to draft the complaint.

"During finals week, we spent way more time on the complaint than on finals. We stayed up all night writing and talking," Schwartz said.

The students did not have the help of lawyers, but were guided by students from the University of North Carolina and a professor at Occidental College who had filed their own Title IX complaints.

"There's a chain, a national network fueled by social media of students reaching out and telling each other how to do this," said Danielle Dirks, a sociology professor at Occidental who organized students there to file a federal complaint but was not herself a victim.

Dirks has since advised students at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, who, she says, also are planning to file soon.

Dirks said a Facebook page for people looking for advice on filing Title IX complaints now has more than 700 members and she is creating a non-profit organization to help others, creating templates and explaining how to file.

Dirks said the colleges, even private schools, receive millions of dollars annually from the federal government and will likely cooperate with any investigation, rather than risk funding.

"We matter and the school shouldn't treat us like we don't matter," said Reed, when asked what she still wants now that her alleged rapist has graduated and been cleared criminally.

"Too many girls become suicidal and are treated with suspicion after opening up. The hope is what happened to me won't happen to anyone else," Reed said. "It just can't."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story contained a copies of the complaint filed with the Department of Education and a letter from the Office of Civil Rights, provided to ABC News by the complaintants. In an effort to guarantee niether the names of the accused nor the alleged victims were included, the documents were removed from the website.

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