ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
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But, first, we look at what's been called a hostile, sexual environment on one of the nation's most prestigious university campuses: Yale. Sixteen students and alumni, male and female, have together filed a complaint saying the university violates a federal law called Title 9 that requires gender equality in all educational programs that receive federal funding.
Here's one of the complaintants(ph), a third-year American studies student named Hannah Zeavin.
Ms. HANNAH ZEAVIN: In giving the example of how people at Yale don't know all their options and not a single person is expelled for the crime of rape, that's hostile. Because it creates an environment in which such crimes are tolerated, by virtue of the fact that they're not being punished. And that's what must really change.
KEYES: The U.S. Department of Education civil rights office will investigate the allegations. To learn more about these efforts, we speak with assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali. Welcome to the program.
Ms. RUSSLYNN ALI (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education): Thank you, Allison.
KEYES: And we should note that some of the language in this segment may not be suitable for young ears. First of all, Russylnn, what - can you explain to us what a hostile, sexual environment is? The complaint against Yale uses that term as your offense guidance manuals have used in the past.
Ms. ALI: Yes. We have a number of investigations around the country on issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence. And, indeed, on this past Monday, Vice President Biden and Secretary Duncan, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced new guidance from our office dealing specifically with sexual violence.
KEYES: Which is separate from the hostile, sexual environment.
Ms. ALI: Which is separate from - that's exactly right. Which is separate from hostile environment, though a part of it. Now, in investigations of hostile environment, you're looking to see whether adults knew or should've known, that is faculty on campus or adults within the high schools or elementary and middle schools, whether they knew or should've known that a hostile environment was happening for a group of students - in this case, women - based on their sex or of a sexual nature and failed to act.
But we are investigating Yale again as we are a number of institutions across the country, and I won't speak to the specifics of that complaint.
KEYES: I want to cite some of the examples of the sexual behavior that's alleged to have happened on that campus. The complaintants say that in September 2009, male students forwarded an email ranking 53 freshmen women in order of how many beers it would take to have sex with them. Like, quote, "I would have sex with you sober," to quote. "I would have sex with you only blackout drunk."
Then, last October, we had the members of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon where - tapes chanting this on campus.
(Soundbite of campus)
CROWD: No means yes. Yes means anal. No means yes. Yes means anal. No means yes. Yes means anal. No means yes.
KEYES: Russlynn, when you hear that, what do you make of that?
Ms. ALI: The allegations in Yale and the Yale complaints I'm not going to speak to specifically. We have heard of instances across the country where institutions and faculty members are really struggling to ensure their environments are safe and free of harassment.
In fact, in two resolutions that we recently issued in two colleges around the country, we were able to work with faculty and the chancellors there to ensure that they did things like make sure that women on their campuses, when hostile environment and discrimination was found, knew how to go through the grievance procedures, knew what their rights were, knew that there was an adult on campus responsible for helping them work through these issues.
We've done things like climate checks where institutions will repeatedly check in with their student body to ensure their environments are safe.
KEYES: In other words, you send actual people to the campus to see what people are
Ms. ALI: During an investigation process, absolutely. We have investigators and attorneys that will conduct a thorough investigation as it is happening in Yale to find out the truth.
KEYES: And I should note that a Yale spokesman has said the university will cooperate with your office and, quote, "takes extremely seriously all allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, including allegations of a hostile environment." I also want to say that we reached out to Yale to ask them to join this conversation, but they said that they haven't yet received the complaint from the office of civil rights and therefore couldn't comment further.
If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're discussing what complaintants have called a, quote, "hostile, sexual environment on the campus of Yale University" and a new investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. I'm joined by Russlynn Ali of that office.
So, explain a bit how the office of civil rights investigates allegations like those against Yale besides the climate check. I mean, what do you actually do?
Ms. ALI: Once we receive a complaint, we evaluate that complaint for things like subject matter, jurisdiction, whether it's timely, et cetera. Then if it meets certain requirements, we then open an investigation. That investigation can take anywhere from a number of weeks to a number of months.
There we will interview students, we will interview faculty, we will interview victims if the case is of a sexual violent nature. And there in fact are victims involved, we might interview people. Other people associated with the campus or campus groups. We might interview folks associated outside of the campus but have knowledge of what's happening on the campus. Our objective is to get at the truth behind the allegations.
If we have reason to believe that sexual harassment has occurred of a hostile nature in violation of Title 9, we will work with adults on that campus and chancellors and general councils alike to ensure that we, with them, change the culture on their campus.
KEYES: I've just got to ask, and I'm not disparaging such complaints in any way, but what about critics who might say, OK, you know what? It's college. People say and do stupid things. Guys say and do stupid things. At what point does it become something that the government has to investigate rather than something that can be handled by an institution?
Ms. ALI: So, anytime we receive a complaint we will thoroughly investigate it. We are duty bound to do that. The question - the legal question at hand is when it rises to the level of a hostile environment, all students have a right to feel safe to learn. If they cannot, then adults on campus, faculty on campus have a duty to ensure that they can. I can't imagine a parent anywhere in this country that would want their young child to go to an environment in which she's supposed to learn and instead is subject to an environment in which she feels fear, in which she can't walk from the dormitory to the library at night.
Nor have I met a faculty member or a lawyer on campus or a college president anywhere that wants their environment to be one that is hostile for any group of students.
KEYES: OK. Russlynn Ali is assistant secretary for civil rights from the U.S. Department of Education. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you much.
Ms. ALI: Thank you, Allison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.