Department of Education postpones interviews

In a continuing investigation of civil rights complaints filed against Duke last Fall, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights postponed indefinitely a series of group interviews with select students.

Originally scheduled for Jan. 12, the eight group interviews would have been facilitated by members of OCR as part of a routine investigation, Chris Heltne, director of communications for Student Affairs, wrote in an e-mail.

The group sessions come in light of two cases alleging that the University discriminates on the basis of sex and race filed Sept. 13 and Oct. 13. At the time of the filings, the complaints were made by seniors Justin Robinette and Cliff Satell. Robinette, however, graduated early and said he is working in Philadelphia.

Heltne declined to comment on the specifics of how students were chosen to take part in the interviews, including how many students were initially chosen. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta and Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, declined to comment.

The focus groups that were originally scheduled were “not specifically about any incidents,” and were instead “to get a sense of student perspective and observations about the climate on campus for students of color, [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] students, racial differences, men and women and more,” according to Heltne’s e-mail to students selected to participate in the sessions.

Robinette and Satell confirmed that they filed complaints against the University but declined to comment further.

Last year, Robinette claimed that he was impeached from his former position as Duke College Republicans chair because he is gay. Robinette filed complaints with the Duke Student Government Judiciary, and he later criticized the administration’s inaction in resolving his case.

According to its website, OCR serves as a “neutral fact-finder” in investigations such as this one. OCR often conducts interviews with the complainants, the recipients of the complaint and other witnesses to determine the validity of the claims.

“We are postponing our on-site visit for next week to work with the University to resolve the allegations,” Kay Bhagat, an OCR attorney, wrote in a Jan. 6 e-mail to the complainants in the investigation. “If the resolution process is not successful with the University, then we will also notify you of any future plans to resume our interviews with your witnesses.”

Bhagat deferred all comment to Jim Bradshaw, an employee in the U.S. Department of Education press office. Bradshaw said that since January 2007, OCR has received 12 complaints involving the University—including the two involving Robinette and Satell, former Duke College Republicans vice chair, that are currently open.

Bradshaw said he could not comment on the details of the specific case against Duke, adding that a resolution has not yet been reached and OCR is still in the investigation process.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a December interview that Duke typically receives one or two complaints from OCR “every other year.”

Schoenfeld added that Duke and OCR made the joint decision to postpone the interviews pending the review of additional information submitted by Duke to OCR, but he declined to comment on the specifics of the information, including the future date of the OCR sessions.

“All I can say is that there has been a complaint that the OCR is investigating, and Duke is cooperating,” he said.

According to the OCR website, OCR will contact the recipient of the complaint and try to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement if it determines that a civil rights law has been violated. The Department of Education may mandate “specific remedial actions” that the University must take to address the complaint, which will be monitored by OCR.

If the recipient is unwilling to negotiate an agreement, OCR will issue a document outlining factual and legal transgressions, as well as measures to ensure action.

Bradshaw said about 90 percent of cases that are submitted to OCR have been resolved within six months, though some may take longer due to the complexities of the allegations.


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