UW Under Federal Investigation For Handling Of Sexual Assault

Aug 4, 2017

A sign tucked away in the Dean of Students Office announces the No More sexual violence campaign.
Credit Tennessee Watson

On July 6, 2017, the University of Wyoming came under federal investigation for its handling of reports of sexual violence made last year. The student who filed the complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said she came forward with the hope of strengthening the university’s policies and procedures. 

But she said for now she wants to remain anonymous, and asked to be called Hope for this story instead of using her real name. Hope said she’s worried speaking out might impact her ability to get a job here in Laramie, but those concerns were overshadowed by her desire to help.

“I want the system to be better,” said Hope. “I want it to work for students the way it should and . . . live up to its fullest potential.”

Hope said she was assaulted in April of 2016. Several days after the incident she went to a faculty member she trusted. That professor promptly figured out that he was obligated to share what he knew with the university’s Title 9 Office.

Title 9 refers to the federal act that covers pretty much anything related to gender discrimination at federally funded educational institutions; that includes everything from making sure mens’ and womens’ sports teams are equally funded to handling sexual assault cases.

In July of 2016, a little less than three months after she disclosed the assault, Hope was contacted by the Title 9 Office, and she assumed it was about her report. Turns out it was about an unrelated matter, but she took it upon herself to bring up the case.

“They apologized,” and Hope said it was a, “you slipped through the cracks kind of thing and we’re sorry. “ 

Jim Osborne, the Title 9 Coordinator and Manager of Investigations at UW, would not speak to the specifics of Hope’s complaint, but he said typically the university responds to reports in 72 hours.

“Usually a delay if a person reports something to a faculty member, it’s usually a matter of a delay or two, if there is a delay getting the information to my office,” said Osborne.  

When the investigation finally began in mid-July of 2016, Hope said it was handled respectfully but it took longer than the recommended 60 days. And questions about why her report initially fell through the cracks remain.

In the midst of the investigation into Hope’s allegations, another report came in about the same perpetrator from a woman Hope said she hadn’t known before.  

The results of the Title 9 Office’s investigation of the two cases found enough evidence to believe the accused was responsible for sexual misconduct.

The next step in the process was for the Dean of Students to arrange for a hearing; where a hearing officer reviews the evidence and makes a final determination of responsibility. Hope shared a portion of the hearing officer’s statement when we met, which read:

“It is highly clear to the hearing officer that the respondent must understand and acknowledge that numerous women feel he pushes boundaries in the very least and at most has committed a crime against them.”

He was asked to modify his behavior, but he was not officially disciplined. Hope wanted him to at least be required to get counseling for his boundary issues, so she appealed the decision. That’s when another issue emerged.

Nycole Courtney, the Assistant Dean of Students, said students can have the support person of their choosing. That person could be a faculty member, a friend, or Courtney said, “a lawyer if they choose. It may be someone they trust very much.”

But heading into the appeal process Hope was told that the advocate she had worked with for the last seven months, now posed a conflict of interest, and she would have to select a new one.

Alicia Selfridge, with the SAFE Project, works to support UW students who are survivors of sexual violence. She said consistent support is critical because the process is filled with a lot of uncertainty.

“I think the survivor thinks about how is this going to affect me? Am I going to get anything out of this? Is this even worth it? 

Selfridge thinks the University of Wyoming actually does a lot to support students emotionally compared to other schools, but for Hope, all of the disruptions in her case undermined that sense of support.   

Hope wanted to make sure other survivors at UW wouldn’t have the same experience. She consciously decided not to pursue a civil suit against the university, and instead pursued a Title 9 complaint.  

“I may not personally see instant relief that I may have seen if I decided to pursue a civil suit,” explained Hope. “But I feel like I’m glad that I’ve gone this direction, because I think this is right for this case, and I think it is right for me and I want the university to do better.”

According to the Office for Civil Rights website, it evaluates all complaints that are received, but only those that actually address Title 9 violations are investigated. 

There are 246 schools currently being investigated for Title 9 violations for sexual assault. In Wyoming, Laramie County Community College, Northwest Community College and the University of Wyoming are all on that list.  

For now Hope wants to focus on getting her degree and to let the Title 9 complaint run its course. The Office for Civil Rights has 180 days to complete its investigation.

Visit Report It for more information about UW's policy and procedures.