updated 4/1/2011 5:56:37 PM ET 2011-04-01T21:56:37

Federal civil rights officials are investigating complaints by Yale University students that the Ivy League university has a sexually hostile environment and has failed to adequately respond to sexual harassment concerns.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights confirmed Friday that it has begun an investigation at Yale. The office gets about 7,000 complaints per year and investigates about one-third of them.

The complaint, sent March 15, alleges that the university failed to respond promptly or effectively to incidents of harassment, resulting in the denial of equal opportunity, the office said.

The students cite incidents in which fraternities held up a sign "We love Yale sluts" outside a women's center and chanted "no means yes" on campus last fall. They also say incoming female freshmen were ranked on attractiveness.

The complaints also include allegations that Yale failed to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault or attempted assault and stalking, said Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale junior who is one of the 16 complainants. She would not disclose the number of complaints or the documentation the students filed.

Brodsky said the students and former students who signed the complaints were "really frustrated and disappointed that Yale again and again fails to respond to both public and private acts of sexual harassment and assaults which creates an environment in which women feel devalued."

"It creates barriers to these women participating in all aspects of Yale life and it perpetuates an environment in which these sort of acts are ok," Brodsky said.

The complaint also alleges the university has an insufficient grievance process for addressing claims.

Yale said it will cooperate with the investigation and takes such allegations "extremely seriously." Yale officials said they can't respond to the complaint because they have not received it.

Brodsky said the office of civil rights will perform what they call a "climate check" by interviewing complainants, other students, faculty and administrators.

If the investigation finds Yale violated a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, the university will likely have to make policy changes such as stepped-up education and better notification of how victims can report concerns, said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women. She welcomed the investigation, saying it shows the office of civil rights is paying renewed attention to the issue.
Maatz said her organization concluded after a study in 2005 that the problem is common at colleges.

"It's a good wake-up call for all schools," Maatz said. "There's a real climate problem. You can't learn if you don't feel safe."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Yale investigated for 'hostile sexual environment'

  1. Closed captioning of: Yale investigated for 'hostile sexual environment'

    >>> tonight, yale university is in the news for all the wrong reasons. yale is being accused of tolerating an environment of sexual hostility against female students on campus. here is nbc news education correspondent rahema ellis in new haven, connecticut.

    >> reporter: founded more than 300 years ago as an all-male institution, today women slightly outnumber men at yale , but some here claim this prestigious university has allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist on campus.

    >> to find out that they still weren't really concerned for women on the same level that they were for men was really disturbing.

    >> reporter: alexandra brodsky is one of 16 students, both men and women, who filed a 26-page complaint with the department of education civil rights office claiming the university violated title ix which mandates any school that receives federal funds must have equality on campus. the complaint cites several incidents including october 2010 , a group of fraternity pledges marched, shouting "no means question" in the area where most freshmen women live. september 2009 a widely circulated e-mail details what was called a preseason scouting report, rating incoming female students by their attractiveness and how drunk somebody would need to be to want to have sex with them. january 2008 pledges from a different fraternity yelled outside the women's center and held up a sign saying "we love yale sluts." yale says it is cooperating with the federal investigation adding, it does not tolerate sexual harassment and has convened numerous forums and working groups to study the incidents.

    >> i think that yale is sending a message that this really isn't a big deal .

    >> reporter: women we talked to on campus said they don't think yale is better or worse than other schools when it comes to sexual harassment .

    >> as a woman at yale i feel safe and feel valued.

    >> reporter: if found in violation of title ix yale stands to lose more than $200 -- $500 million in federal funding and potentially worse, damage a centuries-old reputati reputation. rahema ellis, nbc news, new haven, connecticut.


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