Education
Education Department Opens Civil Rights Inquiry Into Abuse at Ohio State

WASHINGTON — The Education Department has opened a civil rights investigation into how Ohio State University officials handled reports of sexual misconduct by a former team doctor, the university announced on Thursday.

A spokesman for the department said investigators would examine reports of sexual misconduct involving Dr. Richard H. Strauss, who served as a physician and team doctor at Ohio State from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, as well as allegations that university employees knew or should have known about the sexual misconduct and allowed it to continue.

Investigations by the department’s Office for Civil Rights tend to focus less on meting out punishment and more on making recommendations for how a university can improve its practices. But the inquiry keeps a harsh spotlight on Ohio State, drawing additional scrutiny to how officials handled claims of sexual misconduct.

It is the department’s latest inquiry into high-profile sexual abuse cases at state universities, even as it has issued guidance intended to scale back investigations of civil rights violations at public schools. The head of the civil rights office issued an internal memo last year meant to reshape the agency’s approach to civil rights enforcement. Critics said it would discourage Education Department staff members from opening cases.

Yet in the last six months, the office has opened three directed investigations — meaning the office did not wait for an individual to file a complaint to start an inquiry — to examine universities’ responses to high-profile, widespread allegations of sexual misconduct.

The office is also looking at how Michigan State University officials handled reports of sexual violence against gymnasts and others by Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, as well as the conduct of a gynecologist at the University of Southern California, Dr. George Tyndall, who is accused of touching students inappropriately.

“The Department of Education is clearly not asleep,” said Peter Lake, a former coordinator for Title IX — the federal sex discrimination law — who now trains officials on compliance. “There may have been a change in direction to some extent with the shift in administration. But the shift doesn’t mean the car is parked in the garage.”

Mr. Lake said he was not surprised that the department had opened the Ohio State investigation, which he anticipated would be “long and complicated,” given the large number of allegations spanning nearly three decades.

“What we’ve seen recently is the department seems very interested in these types of scenarios where allegations suggest that there have been abuses over a long period of time, especially associated with medical practices,” Mr. Lake said.

Brett Sokolow, the executive director of the Association for Title IX Administrators, drew a distinction between the types of investigations that became common under the Obama administration, in which universities’ entire response systems were scrutinized, and the types of investigations being pursued under the current secretary, Betsy DeVos.

“That’s not what is going on here; they’re looking at behaviors over a period of time,” Mr. Sokolow said. But he added that in general, “anyone who thought” that the office under Ms. DeVos “was going to be much kinder and gentler to colleges has misread it.”

At Ohio State, nearly 100 former athletes from 14 sports teams and other students have said they were sexually abused by Dr. Strauss, who groped men under the guise of administering physical examinations, the university announced last month. Dr. Strauss committed suicide in 2005.

Three separate lawsuits have been filed against the university alleging that it knew of the doctor’s misconduct and did nothing to stop it.

The scandal has ensnared Representative Jim Jordan, a conservative firebrand running for speaker of the House, who served as an assistant wrestling coach and has been accused by some of his former wrestlers of turning a blind eye to the abuse. Mr. Jordan has vehemently denied those accusations and dismissed them as politically charged.

The university, acting on the advice of its legal counsel, hired the law firm Perkins Coie in April to conduct an independent investigation into the doctor’s misconduct. Investigators with Perkins Coie have interviewed more than 200 former athletes and other students at Ohio State.

“We welcome the involvement and careful oversight of O.C.R. and look forward to providing any information we can,” Gates Garrity-Rokous, vice president and chief compliance officer for Ohio State, said in a statement, referring to the civil rights office.

Joe Sauder, a lawyer representing a number of former Ohio State students who are suing the university, echoed that sentiment.

“Victims continue to contact us on a daily basis, many of whom have not talked to O.S.U.’s independent investigators,” Mr. Sauder said. “They have been empowered to speak with us, and we look forward to making sure their voices will finally be heard.”

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