The National Women’s Law Center and dozens of other advocacy organizations are calling on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Ohio State University after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct by former university physician Richard Strauss.
The group, in a letter sent Wednesday, urged the department’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, to initiate an investigation into “Ohio State University’s failure to respond to a widely known pattern of alleged sexual abuse” by Strauss.
The letter also seeks a broader investigation into the university's response to sexual abuse.
The letter was addressed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the head of the department’s Office of Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus. In addition to the National Women’s Law Center, the letter was signed by 36 other groups including the NAACP, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence and various state advocacy groups and coalitions.
Ohio State first announced an investigation of Strauss in April, stemming from allegations of sexual abuse during his time as a physician for the university’s wrestling team. Since then, more than 100 former students have reported that they were sexually abused by Strauss, who worked at the university from 1978 to 1998. He killed himself in 2005. Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie is conducting an independent investigation into the allegations for Ohio State.
The organizations wrote in Wednesday's letter that under federal Title IX requirements, universities must respond to sexual harassment on their campus. They asked the department to specifically investigate “the role played by (Ohio State) employees who knew or should have known about the harassment in allowing the abuse to continue.”
The letter referred to other “high-profile” events “demonstrating how common it is for university employees to use their position, influence and trust to serially sexually abuse students,” pointing to the recent conviction of Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar and reported sexual abuse by University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall.
“Just as OCR has initiated investigations of Michigan State University and the University of Southern California, it must also initiate an investigation of Ohio State University’s failure to respond to serial sexual abuse affecting large numbers of students,” the letter said.
Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said the university remains committed to finding out what happened during Strauss' employment at Ohio State.
"It is critical to note that the concerns expressed by these groups in this letter relate to allegations of abuse during a period of time from 1978 to 1998, and the university of today shares the concern that individuals at the time knew and may not have responded appropriately, which is why this is a critical focus of the ongoing independent investigation," Johnson said in an emailed statement. "We are committed to finding the truth of what happened during that time at Ohio State."
Wednesday's letter also urged the education department to refrain from any rule-making that would further weaken Title IX regulations regarding schools’ responsibilities to prevent and address sexual harassment of students.
DeVos announced last fall that the department would rescind previous Title IX guidance that addressed schools’ obligations to address sexual violence and harassment. At the time, she said current Title IX enforcement policies had diminished due-process rights for the accused and “pushed schools to overreach.”
But the groups signing Wednesday's letter said those recent changes to Title IX guidelines “threaten to take us back to a time when the sexual violence that plagues our nation’s schools was simply swept under the rug."
The groups also sent a separate letter Wednesday to committee leaders of the U.S. House Committees on Education & the Workforce and on Oversight & Government Reform. That letter asked for hearings on “the profoundly troubling phenomenon of colleges and universities covering up sexual abuse perpetrated on students by employees," pointing again to allegations of abuse by Strauss at Ohio State as well as the issues at Michigan State and USC.
The letter also requested the committees conduct hearings on the education department’s response to those matters.