WASHINGTON — Last fall, as she was starting her senior year at the University of Toledo, Sarah was raped by someone she had trusted and considered a close friend. It was six months before she could bring herself to report the assault to officials at the school.
Once she did come forward, Sarah said she suffered a fresh wave of anxiety when she learned how the university planned to punish her attacker: a $25 fine, 10 hours of sexual assault education, and one year of probation.
"The way they handled it was extremely upsetting," said Sarah, a Cincinnati native who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy. Not only was her rapist allowed to remain on campus, but he kept his job as a student worker at the school. Suffering anxiety and depression, she withdrew from classes and finished her studies elsewhere.
On Wednesday, Sarah filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that the University of Toledo's handling of her case violated Title IX. That law requires colleges and universities that receive federal funds to investigate claims of sexual assault and provide a timely and impartial grievance procedure to resolve those claims.
Sarah said the UT investigation was "biased" in favor of her assailant. "They really participated in victim blaming," she said.
Jonathan Strunk, a spokesman for the university, confirmed the assailant's punishment, but said he could not otherwise comment on the specifics of the case. He said UT is committed to combating sexual assault on campus.
"The University of Toledo fully investigates all reports of sexual misconduct and offers survivors resources on campus, including advocates in the counseling center, and through strong community partners such as the YWCA," Strunk said.
He said allegations are reviewed by a student conduct hearing board, with specially trained members who recommend sanctions if a student is found to have violated campus policy.
Sarah's complaint was one of several Title IX cases filed on Wednesday by students in three states, all working with End Rape on Campus, an advocacy group that provides free support to students filing such complaints. The other institutions named in the complaints are the University of Michigan and the University of California at Santa Barbara, according to End Rape on Campus. The complaints are not public documents, but End Rape on Campus released some details of the filings.
The federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating 76 higher education institutions for how they handle sexual violence allegations. There are four Ohio colleges on the list: Denison University, Ohio State University, the University of Akron, and Wittenberg University.
In recent months, lawmakers in Congress have ramped up their attention to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. About one in five women have been the victim of a sexual attack during college, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would dramatically increase financial penalties against colleges that fail to report sexual assault crimes as required by federal law, among other provisions. A leader in the legislative effort, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently released a survey of more than 300 higher education institutions that revealed major problems with the way schools report, investigate, and resolve allegations of rape on college campuses.
In Sarah's case, she said she felt like the university diminished what had happened to her and gave her attacker a slap on the wrist. Her ordeal began on Sept. 27, when she was at her friend's apartment.
"We were drinking . . . just talking and having fun," recalled Sarah. But his mood changed and he became very emotional, eventually blocking her from leaving the apartment. She said she "froze" when he first started grabbing her but then she started to fight him off.
"He kept screaming at me 'Just one time, just one time'," she recalled. In the weeks and months after the attack, she tried to go back to a normal life but she felt "foggy" and confused.
"I kept trying to rationalize and justify his actions. It was harder for me to say 'this is rape' because it was someone I had known for three years," she said. "It just didn't make sense for him to do that to me."
She eventually sought counseling and decided to report the incident to the university. She said she didn't go to the police because she thought school officials would have a better understanding of acquaintance rape.
She said she was shocked by UT's decision to let him stay on campus, with probation and other minor penalties. The outcome seemed "very unfair," she said. "I had to withdraw from courses because of panic attacks."
Strunk, the UT spokesman, said the $25 fine is given to any student who violates the university's student code of conduct, no matter the severity. He said UT has a comprehensive review process to ensure it is in compliance with its Title IX obligations.
A spokesman for Department of Education said the agency could not confirm receipt of a specific complaint. He said the agency conducts an initial evaluation of such filings, and if DOE opens an investigation, the agency notifies the school, the complainant, and the public.