WHEELING - Bethany College is among 55 colleges and universities across the country under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released the list Thursday. Along with Bethany College, other nearby institutions under investigation include Denison University in Ohio; Ohio State University; Carnegie Mellon University; Penn State; and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.
The Title IX law prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. It is the same law that guarantees women equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and increasingly is being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.
Bethany College officials say they acted properly during a 2013 sexual assault investigation, but the school is now part of a federal probe.
Bethany College spokeswoman Rebecca Rose said Bethany's inclusion stems from an alleged sexual assault that happened last fall. She said college officials believe they handled the situation correctly.
"Upon the assault being reported to the college ... law enforcement was immediately contacted by college personnel. At that time, law enforcement launched an investigation that ran concurrent to the internal student conduct investigation that the college initiated," she said. "The matter was investigated by local and State Police and taken to the Brooke County grand jury, where they did not produce an indictment in the case.
"We feel strongly that we have fully complied with both the spirit and the letter of the law as it relates to both the Clery Act and The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. The college always reserves the right to reopen any investigation if new evidence is provided. Because the safety of our students is our priority, we take any allegations of sexual assault very seriously."
The list's release comes as the Obama administration seeks to shed greater transparency on the issue of sexual assault in higher education and how it is being handled.
Going forward, the Department of Education will keep an updated list of schools facing such an investigation and make it available upon request.
"We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue," Catherine E. Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
Lhamon said a school's appearance on the list does not mean that it has violated the law but that an investigation is ongoing.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there had been "lots of internal debate" about whether to release the list but that he believes in transparency; he said the more the country is talking about the problem of sexual assault, the better. Duncan said there is "absolutely zero presumption" of guilt in his mind for schools being investigated.
"No one probably loves to have their name on that list," Duncan said during a White House media briefing. "But we'll investigate; we'll go where the facts are. And where they have done everything perfectly, we'll be very loud and clear that they've done everything perfectly."
Duncan said while being on the list might feel difficult for schools, it pales in comparison to the difficulty and trauma borne by sexual assault victims on American college campuses.
"In terms of what's morally right there, the moral compass, whatever we can do to have fewer young women and young men having to go through these types of horrific incidents, we want to do that," Duncan said.
Citing research, the White House has said that one in five female college students is assaulted. President Obama appointed a task force comprised of his Cabinet members to review the issue after hearing complaints about the poor treatment of campus rape victims and the hidden nature of such crimes.
The task force announced the creation of a website, notalone.gov, offering resources for victims and information about past enforcement actions on campuses. The task force also made a wide range of recommendations to schools, such as identifying confidential victims' advocates and conducting surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on campuses.