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Last week, the Department of Education sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to act as a warning to any college or university engaging in retaliatory actions against faculty members or students that have made allegations of civil rights abuse against the school, and promising “appropriate enforcement action” that could include termination of federal financial assistance to the school or criminal charges with the Department of Justice should the warning be ignored.

The letter is intended to clarify the existing laws overseen by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, noting that any reports of potential civil rights violations made to the DoE or an individual institution’s administration must be treated with respect and praise, and not condemnation or fear of reprisal from colleagues, schoolmates, or the administration themselves.

“Discriminatory practices are often only raised and remedied when students, parents, teachers, coaches, and others can report such practices to school administrators without the fear of retaliation,” wrote Seth M. Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights. “Individuals should be commended when they raise concerns about compliance with the federal civil rights laws, not punished for doing so.”

Galanter’s letter was also clear on the potential ramifications that a college or university that is found to be guilty of having engaged in retaliatory practices against those making civil rights abuse allegations, the consequences would be severe, amounting to either a suspension or termination of federal funding, or possibly criminal prosecution.

“If OCR finds that a recipient engaged in retaliation and the recipient refuses to voluntarily resolve the identified area(s) of noncompliance or fails to live up to its commitments in a resolution agreement, OCR will take appropriate enforcement action,” Galanter continued. The enforcement actions available to OCR include initiating administrative proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue financial assistance made available through the Department to the recipient; or referring the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for judicial proceedings.”

The warning by the Department of Education comes on the heels of three scandals at US colleges and universities that have been accused of unlawful mishandling of sexual assaults, which includes both covering up incidences of sexual abuse and allegedly retaliating against assault survivors and their advocates who have spoken out about the cover-ups.

Of these scandals, the most publicized so far has been the case of Landen Gambill, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sophomore and sexual abuse survivor who helped file a complaint against UNC with the DoE with five other students, and was then charged with allegedly “intimidating” her accused attacker by speaking out about her abuse, despite having never named him in public. The proceedings were filed with the school’s Honor Court, which the UNC admnistration had maintained was independent from their purview. However, after Gambill filed another complaint with the DoE regarding the Honor Court case, the UNC administration dropped the charges against her. Had Gambill been found guilty by the Honor Court, she may have faced expulsion.

Then, earlier this month, Occidental College received a similar complaint regarding the school’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases filed by a group of 36 students, faculty members, and alumni. Part of the 250-page complaint, which included reports of a student only having to write a five-page essay after having found guilty of sexual assault, alleged that students who spoke out about the school’s policies were denied campus jobs.

Swarthmore College, the third US college to face a DoE complaint this year, was also accused of having “intimidated and discriminated” against students who publicly spoke about the school’s response to sexual assaults, including skepticism towards those making allegations of rape as to whether their attacks ever took place at all.

Last fall, former Rice University student Olivia Hansen made similar accusations against her former university in an op-ed piece for the school’s student newspaper, claiming that she was asked to leave the school after being intimadated by her former attacker, and asserting that other students who have experienced various forms of trauma had also been expelled in order to prevent bad publicity and keep Rice University at the top of “Happiest Student” rankings. Hansen has not filed a complaint with the Department of Education.