- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The University of Virginia and the Department of Education have reached an agreement over its handling of sexual assault complaints, ending a yearslong federal investigation into the school’s procedures and policies, university and federal officials said Monday.

UVA has been under investigation since 2011 because of complaints that its sexual assault policies didn’t comply with Title IX, a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program.

The department said Monday that UVA failed over the past several years to promptly respond to some sexual assault complaints and created a “hostile environment” for victims. But it also praised the university for recently overhauling its policy to bring it into compliance with Title IX.

The university has agreed to take several additional steps, including implementing a system for tracking and reviewing reports and investigations; training students, faculty and administrators on the university’s procedures; and ensuring that agreements with groups such as fraternities and sororities clearly state that sexual violence is prohibited.

UVA will also review all complaints heard by its sexual misconduct board over the last several years to determine if the cases were handled appropriately.

Wendy Murphy, who represents a woman who said she was a victim of sexual assault at UVA in 2011, said requiring the school to re-examine old complaints is significant.

“The family, the victim and I are looking forward to UVA’s reconsideration of her case because even though its many years later, and she can’t reclaim those years, she absolutely can benefit emotionally and psychologically from the fact that justice can still be served on campus,” Murphy said.

While the investigation is complete, the department will monitor the university’s progress in implementing the changes over the next three years.

UVA was one of 55 schools that the department announced last year was under investigation for Title IX complaints stemming from sexual violence. Since then, that figure has more than doubled.

The department said that UVA had violated Title IX by not “promptly and equitably” responding to certain reports of sexual assault, including some that involved fraternities.

The university failed to take appropriate action in 22 of 50 informal reports of sexual assault through 2012, including reports of rape and gang rape, the report said.

It also said the school’s previous sexual violence and harassment policy was unfair to either complainants or those accused of sexual assault.

But after making several improvements, UVA now has the first university policy that’s fully compliant with Title IX since new guidelines were released in 2014, the department said.

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics at the National Women’s Law Center, said the findings of the investigation are unique to UVA, but the problems are found in schools nationwide. She said she hopes the report will encourage other schools to make similar changes.

“It confirms what we hear from students across the country: that there are problems in terms of universities’ responses to sexual assault,” Chaudhry said.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan said many of the measures outlined in the report are already in place.

“Harassment and violence in any form have no place in our community,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Individual cases, which are often extraordinarily complex, can be debilitating and heart-wrenching for everyone involved. In responding to these incidences, we must continue to provide compassionate support and care to survivors while better ensuring that our adjudication process is adequate, timely and fair.”

UVA’s sexual assault policies came under intense scrutiny last year after a Rolling Stone article graphically depicted a student’s allegations of gang rape. The piece was later retracted after and a police investigation said it had found no evidence to back the claims of the victim.

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Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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