1 of 3
Michael Sisak, Associated Press
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking in New York on April 10, 2014. 55 colleges and universities are being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse complaints, the Education Department revealed Thursday.

The release Thursday of a federal list of 55 colleges with open "sexual violence investigations" underscores that the twin problem of how to prevent and respond to sex assaults on campus has become a national question, touching elite private schools as well as public flagship and regional universities.

The list from the Education Department continues the Obama administration's quest to shine a spotlight on sex assault in response to questions raised in recent years about how prominent colleges have handled rape allegations and related issues. This week, a White House task force released a report aiming to help colleges prevent sex assaults.

Three Ivy League universities landed on the list: Harvard University (its college and its law school), Princeton University and Dartmouth College. So did other prestigious private schools, such as Emory University, the University of Southern California and Amherst and Swarthmore colleges.

The release came at a sensitive moment for schools. Thursday was the deadline for admitted students to decide where they want to go to college.

The department's Office for Civil Rights is examining complaints it received from individuals on campuses and those it discovered as part of its regular efforts to ensure compliance with the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding.

The department said this is the first comprehensive look at which campuses are under review for possible violations of the law's requirements for handling of sexual violence and harassmentreports. But the new list does not include details about exactly what the department is examining at each school.

"We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. "I also want to make it clear that a college or university's appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law."

Some universities provided a few details after the list was released.

Catholic University spokesman Victor Nakas said the university learned Jan. 8, 2014, that one of its students had filed a Title IX complaint. "The complaint concerned the investigation and adjudication of a report of sexual assault that occurred in December 2012," Nakas said. He said Catholic is cooperating fully and is "confident that there will be a just resolution of this matter."

Frostburg State spokeswoman Liz Medcalf said the federal investigation at the university in Western Maryland apparently began in the fall semester. She said it concerns an assault case that occurred off campus in 2013.

"Anything beyond that is more specific than I'm allowed to say," Medcalf said. "We're giving them all the information they asked for."

She said the university has conducted campus climate surveys and taken a variety of steps to educate students about prevention of sexual assault. "We do continuously try to improve these policies and processes," she said. "It is a big issue on college campuses. College campuses are spending a lot of time and energy and brainpower and effort to try to address this."

William and Mary spokesman Brian Whitson said he could not provide details of the case that prompted the federal inquiry.

"But in general, I can tell you sexual assault response and education is an area we are very focused on," Whitson said. "We continually look at our own practices to determine if they can be improved or enhanced. Since this is a broad review of our policies and practices by OCR, the result may well provide us valuable information as we continue to look at new ways to address an issue that confronts every university in the country."

U-Va. said in a statement that it has been working with OCR since summer 2011 on a review of "policies and systems in the area of Title IX/sexual misconduct." The university noted that it hosted a national conference about sexual misconduct policies in February. "The conference included candid discussion among college and university presidents, students, survivors of sexual misconduct, student affairs professionals, legal and sexual violence experts," it said.

Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, said the release of a comprehensive list of schools under investigation appeared to be a first. She echoed the department's caution about interpreting the list, saying it basically signified "what the level of their workload is in this area at the moment."

Meloy added: "Institutions for some time now have been paying more and more attention to this issue. That's certainly going to continue."