Roughly 1 in 5 female students report being sexually assaulted in college.
1 in 16 male students report being sexually assaulted in college.
But when it comes to discipline, universities suspended just 1 of every 12,400 students enrolled each year for sexual misconduct offenses, a USA TODAY data analysis found.
They expelled 1 in 22,900.
Adrianna Crossing thought her case was straightforward.
A doctoral student at Michigan State University, she had grown increasingly alarmed when a male student’s romantic interest in her escalated into obsession.
He pulled her phone number from an emergency contact list and messaged her repeatedly. His persistent requests for dates, late-night calls and messages and an email describing his imagined future with her prompted her to report the matter to campus officials and police and file for a restraining order.
Michigan State launched an investigation in March 2019 under the federal law known as Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in education. The male student refused to participate. But almost all the evidence was in writing.
The case crawled along for nearly 10 months, during which investigators interviewed two witnesses. The investigation found him responsible for sexual harassment and stalking. When officials asked what sanction she felt was appropriate, Crossing recommended expulsion, saying she feared for her and other women’s safety and the student needed to be held accountable.
Instead, Michigan State placed him on disciplinary probation, to be punished only if he violated school rules again. He graduated later that year with a master’s degree in human resources.
“It was a slap in the face,” Crossing said. “For the investigation to just drag on forever, with no end in sight – and then an abrupt end, and it’s nothing? It’s what we call ‘retraumatizing.’”
Passed 50 years ago this summer, Title IX is supposed to ensure students’ right to an education free from sexual harassment and gendered violence. It put the onus on colleges to build robust systems for investigating allegations, protecting complainants and disciplining perpetrators.
But an 18-month USA TODAY investigation found a flawed system with inconsistent enforcement and widely varying results across dozens of the nation’s largest public universities. Understaffed Title IX offices struggled to reach victims and effectively address complaints. Schools steered cases toward outcomes that required minimal action and imposed light sanctions against perpetrators that undercut findings of fault.
While many survivors who endured the process saw their education disrupted, few students who harmed them faced meaningful punishment. Universities suspended just 1 of every 12,400 students enrolled each year for sexual misconduct. They expelled 1 in 22,900. That’s despite studies consistently finding roughly 1 in 5 female and 1 in 16 male students experience sexual assault in college, with LGBTQ+ students experiencing sexual violence at even higher rates.
The findings stem from a first-of-its-kind analysis of Title IX case outcome data obtained by USA TODAY through inquiries to university officials and public records requests.
USA TODAY’s “Title IX: Falling short at 50” exposes how top U.S. colleges and universities still fail to live up to the landmark law that bans sexual discrimination in education. Title IX, which turned 50 this summer, requires equity across a broad range of areas in academics and athletics. Despite tremendous gains during the past five decades, many colleges and universities fall short, leaving women struggling for equal footing.
USA TODAY asked 107 public universities that compete in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision for aggregate statistics about sexual misconduct reports received from 2014 through 2020, including the number formally investigated, the number that resulted in students being found responsible, and a breakdown of sanctions imposed. The analysis covered all forms of sexual misconduct schools must address under Title IX, including sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
Of those schools, which represent the nation’s most recognizable and well-resourced public universities, 56 gave the news organization complete data covering all seven years. Thirty-four provided data covering a partial timeframe, and 11 gave incomplete data that captured a subset of the requested information. Six – including the University of Georgia, Auburn University, and the University of Nevada, Reno – provided none at all.
In the absence of a federal mandate to report such information, USA TODAY’s analysis, while incomplete, offers the fullest picture yet of how top colleges handled sexual misconduct reports during a period of heightened enforcement of the law and attention toward the issue of campus sexual assault.
In addition to the data analysis, reporters reviewed thousands of pages of Title IX case files, policies, outside reviews, court records, and other documents and interviewed more than 100 student survivors, current and former Title IX officials, attorneys, researchers and activists to understand how cases fell through the cracks.
Among the findings:
“This data really helps provide a counternarrative to the men’s rights groups claiming that there are swaths of young men who are being falsely accused of sexual violence and having their lives ruined,” said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of the nonprofit It’s On Us, which combats campus sexual violence through student organizing and education. “It’s just simply not true, and this data backs that up.”
To be sure, the schools provided aggregate numbers that offer a big-picture view of Title IX case outcomes. With one exception – Georgia State – they did not provide specific details about the conduct alleged in each case, and most schools did not list the sanctions imposed according to the violation types.
Sexual misconduct violations also vary widely in severity, from verbal sexual harassment to forcible rape. Some schools view these situations, particularly less severe offenses, as learning opportunities that do not merit suspension or expulsion. Many survivors also decline to pursue formal investigations but still receive accommodations, such as retaking a class, changing dorm rooms, or switching out of a class with their perpetrator.
Almost all stakeholders agreed the Title IX process is an imperfect system, carried out mostly by well-intentioned people. Already stretched thin, school administrators struggle to interpret complicated federal mandates and adapt each time they change.
But a flawed process beats no process, experts said, and just a decade ago, victims of sexual violence at many colleges had nowhere to seek assistance or recourse. Students could always report incidents to law enforcement, but the Title IX and criminal justice systems serve two different purposes, and the bar for a criminal conviction is much higher.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is tasked with enforcing the law. Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon, who heads that office, said the data collected by the news organization demonstrates the continued and distressing salience of the issue of sex-based discrimination in schools and that “we have quite a distance still to travel to make Congress’ 50-year-old promise true in students’ lives.”
“The change that we are seeing in this country is slow. It’s insufficient. It’s less than Congress promised. It’s less than we need and it’s enormously frustrating, but I know what I’ve seen is sea change because the federal government has drawn attention to the issue,” Lhamon said.
“I’ve seen dramatically different experiences with students in schools. I’m very grateful to be part of pushing that and I regret that this issue has persisted for so long and has been such a difficult issue for us to reckon with nationally.”
In some ways, Michigan State is a model for how colleges should address sexual misconduct. It dedicates 42 full-time employees to Title IX cases and survivor advocacy, including prevention, education and outreach specialists, investigators and therapists.
The 2,211 sexual misconduct reports it received against students over the seven-year period was among the highest in USA TODAY’s analysis and an indication that survivors felt comfortable reporting to school officials.
But Michigan State has struggled to handle its heavy caseload, according to an audit by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, required as part of a resolution agreement over its handling of sexual abuse claims against its former doctor, Larry Nassar. Title IX officials closed reports prematurely and communicated poorly with victims during the process, the audit found. At one point during the 2019-20 school year, its average case from report to resolution lasted 361 days – roughly twice as long as its current policy prescribes.
Michigan State spokesperson Dan Olsen acknowledged the problems but said the school is making progress. He noted the firm’s audit of spring 2022 cases found fewer timeliness issues and that “our Title IX Office’s investigations are fair, impartial and thorough, and the institution follows its policies and the Title IX regulations appropriately.”
Olsen also said Michigan State tapped another outside firm to help address the issues and plans to hire more Title IX staff.
The promise of additional staffing came as little consolation to Crossing, whose experience left her feeling “no confidence” in Michigan State’s “ability or desire to protect the students that fight and go all the way through this process.” Olsen declined to comment on her case, citing student privacy laws.
“It did not seem like it was actually designed to serve the students,” Crossing said. “It seemed like it was designed to protect the university.”
Although colleges have adjudicated sexual assault allegations under their student conduct codes for decades, robust enforcement under Title IX did not begin until the early 2010s, when the Department of Education under President Barack Obama launched a crackdown. The issue has been a political football since.
In 2014, the Office for Civil Rights prescribed specific steps schools must take to respond to sexual misconduct complaints or risk losing all federal funding. It directed schools to adopt policies that centered on the safety and well-being of the survivor.
Pushback began almost immediately. Critics accused schools of punishing male students without fair hearings or adequate evidence. Scores of disciplined students sued their colleges, and courts rebuked some schools for due process violations.
Shortly after Donald Trump took office in 2017, his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, rescinded the Obama-era rules. Within a year, many colleges conducted fewer investigations, found fewer students at fault, and suspended and expelled fewer students as a result, USA TODAY’s analysis found.
The drop-off, Lhamon said, “suggests that the country heard loud and clear” the Trump administration’s message that it was not “taking seriously the Congressional charge to ensure our students’ rights would be protected in school.”
DeVos then unveiled new regulations in 2020 that made it harder for schools to find accused students at fault. But the data show colleges had not been disciplining men en masse, as critics had claimed.
It was the opposite: Half of Title IX investigations resulted in no discipline, which experts said showed schools exercise great caution before rendering judgment. Even schools with the highest discipline rates removed very few students from their campuses. Virginia Tech, for example, expelled or suspended for sexual misconduct 5 of every 10,000 enrolled students – the highest rate of any school in USA TODAY’s analysis.
“We’ve taken a conversation that was originally about the huge numbers of students sexually assaulted every year, and we’ve made it almost entirely now about this small population of people who have been punished,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights lawyer whose activism as a Yale University student helped spur the Title IX policy changes under Obama.
In June, President Joe Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, proposed changes that would undo parts of the DeVos rules. But never has the federal government collected data from schools on Title IX case outcomes, and only two states, New York and Maryland, require colleges to report such statistics.
The data is “incredibly important,” Lhamon said, and the country would benefit from having it. But the department does not have the congressional authority, staffing or funding to collect it.
As a result, no one knows the true impact of the whiplash in regulatory changes, said Tara Richards, a University of Nebraska Omaha victimologist who studied the data from those two states and found similar results as USA TODAY.
“As a social scientist, the thing that drives me bananas is that policy should be driven by data,” Richards said. “It is just maddening that we’re making all these important decisions that impact students all over the country in a vacuum.”
Those decisions invariably filter down to one key person on each campus – the Title IX coordinator, whose job overseeing their school’s implementation of Title IX is made more difficult by the mutable edicts coming from Washington, D.C. As a result, not many people want the job, said Andrea Goldblum, who spent six years as a Title IX coordinator at four different colleges, including Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati.
People often blame coordinators for schools’ failings, Goldblum said, but the criticism isn’t always fair. The work is highly emotional, stressful, and political, she said. It’s important and meaningful, but not fun. The turnover and burnout rates are high, she said, “especially when offices are not adequately resourced and it’s all on one or two people’s shoulders.”
At least six different people have served as Cincinnati’s Title IX coordinator in the last decade, according to public records. Goldblum spent nine months in the job until Cincinnati forced her to resign in 2019 for providing a statement to the student newspaper, court records show.
The statement, which was never published, addressed mounting public criticism amid revelations that the school gave an award to, then wrote an article about, a student who was registered as a sex offender. He had transferred to Cincinnati after being convicted of gross sexual imposition and suspended from Bowling Green State University for sexual misconduct. Goldblum said her statement offered resources to students who may have been affected.
Goldblum sued Cincinnati for retaliation under Title IX. The lawsuit is ongoing. But it ended her career in Title IX work, she said.
Search firms used to contact her about openings for Title IX jobs, she said, but now no school will touch her. She now works in employee relations for JPMorgan Chase.
“Everybody is unhappy in this (Title IX) process because of the nature of what’s going on,” Goldblum said. “You have to be very intrinsically motivated, and it can be very isolating when you don’t have the support around you.”
Despite tremendous gains during the past five decades, many colleges and universities fall short of Title IX, leaving women struggling for equity.
When a university’s Title IX office isn’t adequately staffed, the consequences can be catastrophic.
At three large Louisiana universities whose Title IX offices were helmed by part-time employees or a single full-time staffer, an alleged serial predator managed to bounce from campus to campus for years without detection.
At least eight female students accused Victor Daniel Silva of sexual assault and exploitation from 2014 through 2020, as he transferred from Louisiana State University to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to Louisiana Tech University, then back to UL Lafayette – each time within months of the latest allegation.
Despite the federal government urging schools to build robust Title IX offices since 2011, neither LSU nor UL Lafayette had any dedicated Title IX staff until 2016. Louisiana Tech had just one during Silva’s tenure.
A key responsibility of the Title IX coordinator is identifying patterns of incidents and potential repeat offenders. Another is collaborating with local law enforcement agencies to ensure they are communicating about incidents involving students.
That didn’t happen in Silva’s case. Police received six reports about him, and the schools’ Title IX offices received three. But each time, officials failed to share the information with each other, despite a state law that required it.
By the time Silva graduated, he had been arrested but not charged, banned from LSU’s campus and placed on probation by UL Lafayette. But never was he found responsible in a Title IX investigation. Nor did he miss a single semester.
Silva previously declined to comment and hung up the phone on a reporter.
Nicole Pellegrin, a UL Lafayette graduate, is one of four women who filed lawsuits against the universities and the Lafayette Police Department this year, alleging police and campus officials broke the law and failed to protect them from Silva. She met him her senior year in their engineering program and said he sexually assaulted her while they were dating.
“I think if they were paying a little more attention to the Title IX stuff and actually trying to do their job there, it would have been very obvious that he needed to be stopped,” Pellegrin said. “There’s no reason it should have gone on as long as it did.”
Schools large enough to sponsor FBS football but that dedicate just one or two Title IX employees are “woefully understaffed,” said W. Scott Lewis, co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators, a professional organization that helps schools comply with the law.
LSU now employs a full-time coordinator, two deputies, three investigators, a case manager and an office coordinator. It opened a new Office of Civil Rights and Title IX last year after reporting by USA TODAY and an outside law firm’s review revealed systemic mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints by its Title IX office and athletic department.
Staffing at the University of Louisiana system campuses, however, lags behind. UL Lafayette, Louisiana Tech, and the University of Louisiana at Monroe – the system’s other FBS school – dedicate only four full-time Title IX staff despite enrolling more students combined than LSU. They assign some Title IX responsibilities part-time to existing employees.
The three UL system campuses spend a combined $770,000 a year on their Title IX programs, according to budget figures. Yet they gave $34 million in direct institutional support to their athletic departments in 2020-21 alone, NCAA financial documents show.
An institution’s budget usually reflects its priorities, but not in this case, said Jim Henderson, the UL system’s president since 2017.
Its Title IX budget “provides a great indication of an institution’s effort to comply with an ever-changing federal mandate, but tells you little about the organizational commitment to change the culture around power-based violence,” he told USA TODAY. He listed several of the system’s recent Title IX-related initiatives, including policy revisions, trainings, and collaborations with outside groups.
For all their efforts, however, few perpetrators faced meaningful punishment.
UL Monroe received 41 reports of sexual misconduct against students in seven years and launched a formal Title IX investigation into nine of them. It expelled one student and suspended two others through an alternative resolution process.
Louisiana Tech did not open any Title IX investigations into students during the seven-year period, though it investigated some sexual misconduct reports under its student conduct code, general counsel Justin Kavalir said. It suspended two students and expelled none.
UL Lafayette received 123 reports of sexual misconduct from 2017 through 2020, data show. Of the 35 that required a response, it opened formal investigations into eight. It found seven students responsible, suspended six of them and expelled one.
Silva was not among them.
Even when staffing isn’t an issue, cases don’t always get investigated.
The California State University system and its 23 campuses for years had a policy that all but ensured certain reports would not reach the Title IX investigation process.
Under that policy, when a student reports a sexual offense to campus or local police, “the police are required to notify the victim that his/her name will become a matter of public record unless confidentiality is requested.”
If they request “confidentiality,” however, then “the police will not report the victim’s identity to anyone else at the University, including the Title IX coordinator.”
Police did not always explain that concept to victims, including one who spoke to USA TODAY. It is the news organization’s policy not to publish the names of people who allege sexual assault without their permission.
She was a freshman at CSU’s Fresno State when she told campus police in March 2020 that a male student raped her in his apartment, a police report shows. She recalled she specifically requested her identity be kept confidential.
What she did not know – and the police did not convey, she said – was that doing so prevented the Title IX office from contacting her.
She wasn’t familiar with Title IX, she said, nor her rights and options. Had she known the school could have investigated her case under a lower evidentiary threshold, provided her accommodations and shielded her from her perpetrator, she said, she would have pursued it.
Instead, a detective handed her a thick packet of information that she said she never read, including the school’s 20-page Title IX policy in legalese. She spent the rest of the year terrified of encountering her perpetrator.
“I was in such a traumatized state,” she told USA TODAY. “I wasn’t going to go home and do a bunch of research on my rights.”
By providing the student the Title IX information, Fresno State likely fulfilled its legal obligations, said Scott Schneider, an attorney for the law firm Husch Blackwell who led the outside investigation of LSU’s Title IX program last year.
But Fresno State missed its opportunity, Schneider said, to support the student.
“It’s almost as if they’re creating some very real incentive to not report these incidents to the Title IX coordinator,” Schneider said. “They’re basically saying, ‘Hey, this very sensitive thing that you’re reporting to us, it’s going to go public, unless you tell us it’s confidential.’ In which case, I would think virtually everyone’s going to elect to maintain confidentiality.”
The policy was in place since at least 2014, records show. CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp said it was necessary to comply with a provision of the state penal code.
But in January, the CSU chancellor’s office quietly revised it. The new policy, which no longer ties a Title IX office referral to the public disclosure of a victim’s name, directs police to “specifically ask the victim if the victim’s name can be provided to the Title IX Office.”
The CSUs weren’t the only schools whose policies undercut the intent of Title IX. One university’s rules were so confusing that students who wanted investigations did not understand how to properly request them, resulting in their cases going nowhere, according to a 2021 doctoral dissertation by researcher Nicole Bedera.
Bedera was granted unprecedented access to the university’s Title IX office during the 2018-19 school year on the condition she keep its identity confidential. USA TODAY discovered it independently in public records but is not naming it because Bedera’s research is ongoing, and she is contractually obligated not to reveal it. Doing so could also lead to the identification of survivors who participated.
“This school really thought that everything they were doing was great,” Bedera said. “They were not at all embarrassed to have a researcher watching what they were doing. They felt betrayed to find out that I thought they were doing a bad job.”
Among her findings: The school’s policy distinguished between “reports” of sexual misconduct, which usually required no follow-up from the school, and “complaints,” which did. Its online reporting form, however, used the words interchangeably. As a result, some survivors who reported sexual misconduct through the website – but, unbeknownst to them, didn’t file a proper complaint – never received a response from the Title IX office and didn’t know why.
Because students did not understand the process, Bedera found, they relied on direction from campus officials, who “subtly and overtly discouraged survivors from coming forward” and habitually steered cases away from the investigation route. In one meeting she observed, the Title IX coordinator described the school’s unwritten practice of “resolving all issues at the lowest possible level.”
Bedera described the university’s and the CSU’s practices as forms of “symbolic compliance” with the law that do little to help survivors.
“Almost all the options available end in inaction,” Bedera said. “If a survivor doesn’t push all the way through to an investigation as their final and only choice, everything else just comes to a surprising and dissatisfying end.”
In the rare events reports made it through investigations, the majority of students found at fault were allowed to stay on campus.
About 1 in 5 students found responsible for sexual misconduct were expelled at the universities in USA TODAY’s analysis. One in 3 were suspended. The rest received lesser sanctions, such as probation, deferred suspension, training, counseling and reflective essays.
At the University of Iowa, 74% of students found responsible for sexual misconduct from 2014 through 2020 were issued sanctions other than expulsion or suspension.
LSU expelled just three students during that period. It suspended 26 and issued lesser sanctions to 44 others.
No school opted for light sanctions more than Georgia State University, where 4 of every 5 students disciplined for sexual misconduct missed no class time.
At least 22 students found responsible for “nonconsensual sexual contact” were placed on probation or assigned training in lieu of suspension or expulsion, case documents show. Of 46 students disciplined for dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, 41 were allowed to remain on campus without missing class time.
One of those students was found responsible for stalking students three times in less than two years. In each of the first two cases, Georgia State placed him on probation and assigned him training. It wasn’t until his third violation in February 2019 that Georgia State expelled him.
Anthony Jones escaped expulsion despite the school finding he sexually assaulted three women.
Georgia State spent six months investigating the allegations against him, case records show. The first woman said Jones cornered her in a stairwell of the student center, grabbed her by the neck and strangled her while he masturbated. Another said he fondled her at a fraternity party. A third said he raped her twice, on Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
Three separate Georgia State hearing boards determined in May 2020 that Jones, who had run for student government president the previous year, violated the sexual misconduct policy in each woman’s case. He received probation in the first two cases and was suspended for the summer semester in the third.
Georgia State also banned Jones from contacting the women; placed a temporary mark on his official transcript noting his sanction; and required him to attend a sexual misconduct “workshop.” He graduated that December with a degree in political science and government.
One of the women, Cabria de Chabert, believed he should have been expelled. Now a full-time retention specialist for Georgia State, de Chabert works with students who were kicked out of school for letting their grades slip and had to jump through hoops to reenroll.
“I feel like if a student can be excluded from the university because of their low GPA, then a predator could be expelled from the university forever,” she said.
Jones was never charged with a crime. In an interview with USA TODAY, he said he probably came on to the women too aggressively and made them feel uncomfortable but denied sexually assaulting them. He said he believed at the time their interactions were consensual. The allegations “ruined my life,” he said, damaging his career prospects and relationships with family and friends.
He remembered little about the workshop, except it involved talking with an assistant dean of students about “consent and stuff like that.”
“The only thing I learned,” Jones said, “is to not trust anyone.”
Georgia State officials declined to comment, be interviewed, or answer questions for this story. Spokesperson Andrea Jones acknowledged USA TODAY’s requests for comment via phone and email but never provided a response.
Expulsions and suspensions aren’t necessarily the gold standard for measuring success in a Title IX case. If survivors can continue their education safely and the campus is not at risk, they may be unnecessary. Experts agree they should be used in the most serious cases, but schools should always try to educate students and correct their behavior.
“We’ve got to provide some kind of educational intervention where we’re trying to at least teach the student,” said Richards, the victimologist. “If we don’t do that, then why would we expect them not to just come back to campus and repeat the behavior?”
But issuing probation to students demonstrating predatory behavior is among the worst actions a college can take, said Laura McGuire, a former sexual violence prevention and education manager at the University of Houston – especially if they show no remorse.
“Now you’re sending a very clear message: ‘We just don’t care. We don’t care if people are being harmed. It’s not our problem,’” McGuire said.
“And a lot of institutions, sadly, have done that.”
Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering Title IX and campus sexual misconduct. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby.
USA TODAY reporters Monique O. Madan, Rachel Axon, Tyreye Morris and Zshekinah Collier and freelance reporter Jessica Luther contributed to this article.
Reporting and analysis: Nancy Armour, Rachel Axon, Steve Berkowitz, Alia Dastagir, Kenny Jacoby, Jessica Luther, Lindsay Schnell, Dan Wolken
Data and public records: Matthias Ballard, Emily Barnes, Emma Cail, Doug Caruso, Max Chadwick, Noah Cierzan, Zshekinah Collier, Daniel Connolly, Ruth Cronin, Elizabeth DeSantis, Caroline Geib, Laura Gerber, Janzen Greene, Daniel Gross, Alyssa Hertel, Porter Holt, Allie Kaylor, Dan Keemahill, Sabrina Lebron, Brian Lyman, Kyle Loughran, Patrick McCarthy, Haley Miller, Tyreye Morris, Marco Moy, Nicolas Napier, Teghan Simonton, Kayan Taraporevala, Lauren Ulrich, Jodi Upton, Dian Zhang
Editing: Peter Barzilai, Chris Davis, Emily Le Coz, Matt Doig
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Title IX: Falling short at 50
Roughly 1 in 5 female students report being sexually assaulted in college.