Deal reached in University of Montana sex-assault probe

2013-05-09T11:31:00Z 2013-06-19T20:15:11Z Deal reached in University of Montana sex-assault probeBy GWEN FLORIO Missoulian The Billings Gazette
May 09, 2013 11:31 am  • 

Department of Justice attorneys sang the University of Montana’s praises Thursday for its efforts to address problems surrounding sexual assault, even as DOJ documents painted a damning picture of how assault cases involving UM students all too often were handled.

Women at UM who reported being sexually assaulted or harassed “were unfairly belittled, disbelieved or blamed for speaking up about what had been done to them,” Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said Thursday.

Results of the yearlong DOJ investigation into how UM handles reports of sexual assaults included among other things:

n That six UM football players — including three who allegedly attacked a single woman — have been accused of involvement in sexual assaults in a three-year period.

n That UM waited a week in early 2012 to tell city police about two students who reported being sexually assaulted on the same night by the same man — and the man fled the country before police were notified.

n And that UM campus police policies on sexual assault were, until recently, “nonexistent.”

Austin came to Missoula on Thursday for a joint news conference with Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter and UM President Royce Engstrom, announcing the Justice Department’s agreements with UM that stemmed from the investigation.

Cotter described the agreements on new UM policies and procedures surrounding reports of sexual assault and harassment as “the gold standard” for colleges and universities around the country as they deal, inevitably, with reports of their own.

And he praised Engstrom for “bold and difficult decisions” in dealing with a “historical problem” on campus that preceded Engstrom’s tenure as president.

The Justice Department also is investigating how the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office handled reports of sexual assault.

Results of the Missoula Police Department investigation should be announced soon, Austin said; however, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said when the investigations were announced a year ago that he wouldn’t cooperate.

“We’ve had numerous conversations with the county attorney and have not found a place for cooperation there,” Austin said. “ … We have the authority to bring litigation” if issues cannot be resolved, he said.

An NCAA investigation into unspecified allegations about UM’s football program continues, Engstrom said. Such investigations typically take 18 months, he said. The NCAA began its investigation in January 2012.

Problems with sexual assault involving UM students began to come to light in mid-December 2011. In response to a newspaper request, the university reported then it had hired an outside investigator to look into allegations that two female students had been gang-raped, possibly after being drugged, by several male students.

The investigation by retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz grew to include nine alleged sexual assaults against women at UM between September 2010 and December 2011.

The fact that UM wasn’t aware of all nine incidents mentioned in the Barz report suggested “a lack of communication between the different responders to sexual assault in Missoula,” said the DOJ.

The remark was in one of two letters released Thursday from the DOJ to UM — one to Engstrom and UM legal counsel Lucy France, the other solely to Engstrom. Among other things, those letters outlined some of the issues that led to the federal investigation, and also what the investigation found.

For instance, the university did not institute Student Conduct Code procedures against the three football players accused of assaulting a woman until nearly a year after the coach knew the alleged victim had filed a report with the Missoula Police Department, according to one of the letters.

“The student assumed that she did not need to file an additional complaint with the university because the police had notified a university employee,” the letter said.

In an apparent reference to the same case, the DOJ wrote that the university employee did not tell UM’s Title IX coordinator or the dean of students, nor did UM investigate the case through the Student Conduct Code process until about a year later, “when those involved in the Title 9 grievance process learned of the incident through the media.”

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