MISSOULA — The Montana University System believes its schools are well-positioned to address new guidelines released by the White House this week as it moves to combat sexual assaults on campuses across the country.
The University of Montana has already implemented many of the recommendations contained in the new White House report, and the state Board of Regents is looking to implement similar efforts across the entire Montana University System.
“By now, anybody who believed two years ago that the Department of Justice stumbled into Missoula and found an anomaly should have a different perspective,” said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of communications with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. “We see all 50 states – nearly every college and university – working to improve their safety and culture of respect.”
Citing national figures suggesting one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, the new White House report laid out a series of guidelines to help campuses combat the problem.
Among them, schools should develop a campuswide plan to respond to reported assaults. They should also make it easier for victims to report incidents and develop student climate surveys to expose the issue.
UM implemented its own climate survey last fall, the results of which are being compiled. The survey was one of several steps taken by the university following a federal investigation into its handling of past incidents.
“We continue to address the issue of student safety and we know our work is never done in this area,” said Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications at UM. “We have been proactive in taking concrete steps on this matter, which include developing a tutorial for all students and training for employees.”
The university also added additional law enforcement to patrol campus, hired an assault prevention coordinator, and revised school policies and procedures to streamline the reporting process.
Regents are considering similar efforts across the Montana University System. McRae said they could include mandatory educational tutorials on alcohol consumption and sexual assault.
“We’re looking at making some investment in a systemwide training and awareness protocol, not unlike the program at UM, but one that goes further than just sexual assault, but also addresses the wise use of alcohol,” McRae said. “We have not made a decision yet, purchased a product or implemented anything.”
Before the White House report was released this week, campus sexual assaults had gained national attention following a series of high-profile cases at Florida State University, UM, Yale and Dartmouth College, among others.
McRae said the incidents have increased the number of national resources and products available for schools to employ when combating the issue. The tutorial at UM, for instance, has been implemented at other national universities, and regents are shopping around for a plan that fits the entire Montana University System.
“We’re trying to see if there’s a system model that could help all campuses, and we would potentially take a mandatory approach, similar to UM,” McRae said. “It’s safe to say the Montana University System is investing in products and improvements we can make on a systemwide basis.”
Ron Muffick, director of student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said regents set their sights on sexual assault and alcohol consumption two years ago, and have been working to address the problems ever since.
While the White House report has been criticized by some for not going far enough, Muffick said the recommendations coming down are encouraging.
“We have the people on campuses working on this, but we wanted to take a system approach to it,” Muffick said. “We’re encouraged by the fact we’ll get more guidance and more specifics (from the White House) on what’s expected of us.”
According to data on file at the U.S. Department of Education, more than 110 forcible sexual assaults were reported on Montana college campuses between 2002 and 2012.
In that time, Montana State University handled 63 forcible sex assault cases while UM handled 31. Washington State University handled 59, while Idaho State handled 25 and the University of Idaho handled 21.
The White House report suggests that most campus assaults go unreported. Just 2 percent of those who are raped while incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, and 13 percent of forcible rape survivors, report the crime to campus police or local law enforcement.
If the national figures are correct, 846 forcible sex assaults went unreported on Montana campuses between 2002 and 2012.
“We feel the Montana University System – our colleges and universities – are strongly situated to continue our leadership and progress toward reducing and preventing sexual assaults,” said McRae. “We’re committing our leadership to improve our culture on campus and help students make safe, respectful and wise choices.”