By Liam Dacko
Stonehill College says it properly investigated a reported sexual assault that took place off-campus, refuting claims from a Boston attorney that the school violated her client’s civil rights through its policies and alleged handling of the matter.
Director of Communications and Media Relations Martin McGovern said the school’s priority is the well-being of its students.
“Stonehill College is committed to the safety of our students and to having policies that are compliant with state and federal law and with best practices,” he said.
“We constantly review and revise our policies so that we can make those policies stronger and more effective. We take this issue very, very seriously. We want to have a strong system that allows people to obtain justice and fairness.”
McGovern confirmed the alleged incident took place Feb. 15 in a bathroom at an off-campus house in Easton. A female student claims she was sexually assaulted by a male student athlete.
The female student reported the incident March 29 to Campus Police. College officials notified the Easton Police Department March 30.
McGovern said Stonehill officials conducted a Title IX investigation after the alleged assault was reported. The College was unable to find anyone officially responsible based on the evidence presented.
The student later appealed the investigation. A supplementary investigation was then conducted. The initial finding was upheld.
Due to student privacy laws, Stonehill College officials could not release additional information about the investigation or details concerning how the initial finding was reached.
Former Middlesex County prosecutor Wendy Murphy, who represents the female student, filed a complaint July 30 with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of the female student and all other female students at Stonehill.
In the complaint, Murphy claims the school violated regulations under Title IX, a law instituted to protect individuals from gender-based discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Murphy seeks remedial action for the way the school responds to sexually-based violence.
“As an overarching observation, Stonehill’s policies are noncompliant with Title IX because they fail to frame violence against women as a civil rights issue, and while they mention Title IX in several places, they nowhere ensure ‘prompt, equitable and effective’ response and redress for victims of sex-based harassment and violence, which is mandatory under Title IX,” Murphy said.
The complaint alleges Campus Police discouraged the student from reporting the alleged assault to civilian police and that the Easton Police Department failed to conduct an investigation.
“My client was discouraged to call Easton Police when school officials said she ‘could’ call them but need not because it was such a strong case they could handle it on campus,” Murphy said.
In response to these claims, McGovern said in a Community Media Update sent to members of Stonehill College that Campus Police gave the female student “direct contact information of an Easton Police Department Detective, who was briefed on the case by our detectives.”
McGovern said the Office of Civil Rights has yet to notify the College of any complaint made by Murphy. However, if such a notification is received, the College will cooperate with their investigation, he said.
Issues related to Title IX are quite prevalent in schools these days as advocates work to reform policies regarding sexual assault. Several colleges in Massachusetts are under scrutiny for this issue.
According to a 2014 report by WCVB, Amherst College, Boston University, Emerson College, Harvard College, Harvard University Law School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst are all facing Title IX investigations by the Education Department.
McGovern said Stonehill College realizes the importance of issues related to sexual assault. As such, the school has maintained an “ongoing relationship” with D. Stafford and Associates for years, he said.
This agency, run by experienced law enforcement officer Delores Stafford, specializes in safety, security and law enforcement issues on college campuses.
“For several years, we have collaborated with Stafford and Associates,” McGovern said. “They helped us prepare for the revision of our policies and standards on sexual assault that we introduced last summer.”
The agency will continue to collaborate with Stonehill College as the school year continues, he said.
“We are working with them again right now to make sure that with one year under our belt with the new standards that are mandated that we are fully complying. We are using them as a consultant to make sure we are adhering to the best practices.”