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Jul 15, 2014 10:32 AM EDT

OCR Official Says Loss of Federal Funding Always an Option for Schools That Mishandle Sexual Assault

Sen. Claire McCaskill
(Photo : Reuters) Sen. Claire McCaskill has been an advocate for sexual assault reform in the military as well as on college campuses.

An official from the Education Department's (ED) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) hinted at some serious penalties for colleges and universities found negligent in investigating sexual assault reports on campus.

OCR Assistant Secretary Catharine Lhamon addressed a group of school leaders on Monday at a sexual assault summit hosted at Dartmouth College, the Huffington Post reported. She said she would see to it that any school with a pattern of mishandling sexual assault complaints would lose their federal funding.

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Sometimes referred to as the "death penalty," complete loss of federal funding is the worst punishment the ED can impose on a school, but they have never had to use it. The OCR is currently investigating 67 colleges and universities for complaints of mishandled sexual misconduct investigations.

"Do not think it's an empty threat," Lhamon said in her address. "It's one I've made four times in the 10 months I've been in office. So it's one that's very much in use."

While some activist groups would like to see the OCR toughen up on the punishments they doll out, the federal government has given the issue of sexual assault on campus plenty of attention.

In an unprecedented move, the ED officially released their list of past and present investigations for Clery Act and Title IX complaints. Previously, media outlets like the HP had to compile their own list.

"It'd always be nice to have more tools. There's always more we can use," Lhamon said during Monday's panel discussion. "Where I sit today, I think we have a set of very, very effective tools we can use."

Currently, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is working on legislation that could worsen penalties against schools with a pattern of mishandling sexual misconduct. She recently released the results of an in-depth survey of 350 schools and they were not pretty. The legislation is expected to get bi-partisan support.

Lhamon said during the summit Monday that she hopes to bolster the OCR staff to accommodate the Title IX enforcement McCaskill's legislation would require.

The American Council on Education (ACE), a higher education lobbying group, argued that a code of student conduct is not set up to adjudicate crimes like sexual assault. While the federal government may be getting serious about fixing the issue of sexual assault on campus, individual colleges will need help from local district attorneys and police departments.

"Our disciplinary and grievance procedures were designed to provide appropriate resolution of institutional standards for student conduct, especially with respect to academic matters," Molly Corbett Broad, head of the ACE, wrote in a letter to the Senate subcommittee on education last month. "They were never meant for misdemeanors, let alone felonies."

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