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Editorial: Title IX reports require even-handed response

Institutions of higher learning, including the University of New Mexico, are between a rock and the proverbial hard place when it comes to balancing the rights of those who claim they have been sexually assaulted or harassed and those who are accused of a range of … something.

Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Law says individuals should be free from gender-based discrimination in education programs or activities that get federal funds. And Title IX covers sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, sexual exposure, speech issues and interactions between anyone with ties to the university – even off campus. But the above can cover a wide range of offenses, from actual physical assault to obnoxious or provocative words.

That makes enforcement and investigation quite challenging for university authorities.

A push by the U.S. Department of Education for better enforcement of Title IX appears to have led to a growing number of complaints across the nation. At UNM the number of Title IX sexual assault and sexual harassment reports filed tripled from 2014 to 2015, a rise officials attribute to increased education and reporting.

Some reports have led to very public action. In 2013, after two students in separate incidents reported they had been groped on campus within the same week, UNM responded by creating a special unit, changing some policies and commissioning an independent audit, among efforts. In April 2014, a student alleged that two football players and another man had sexually assaulted her off-campus after a party. Charges against the three men were later dismissed, and all of the parties have sued UNM. The alleged victim also filed a Title IX report with the school.

Late in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was investigating how UNM handles sexual assault and harassment cases. The report has not been released yet, but it’s doubtful that a bevy of government lawyers and investigators have spent months investigating just to say all is well and UNM is making good progress. We’ll see.

It’s worth noting that UNM is not alone in wrestling with these issues.

The university must take steps to make sure students are reasonably protected and that assault and harassment complaints are fully investigated. But it’s also worth noting that colleges and universities face the problem that federal rules don’t make clear what constitutes some kinds of offenses.

But university officials cannot get caught up in the kind of hysteria inspired by the incredible story of rape at the University of Virginia as told in Rolling Stone – because, as the magazine now admits, it wasn’t true.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.