Montana Regents Investigate University Sex Attacks

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – The state Board of Regents plans a system-wide look at the way it handles reports of sexual assault after an ongoing investigation uncovered reports of at least five recent attacks at the University of Montana.

At Thursday’s meeting in Helena, board members expressed concern about the sexual assaults at UM and made a commitment to work to prevent similar attacks on all of Montana’s college campuses.

The regents called the attacks “intolerable” and affirmed their commitment to safe school environments.

“We really believe there needs to be a systematic and systemic plan for what we’re learning here about changing the culture of any kind of tolerance or silence in regard to this issue,” said Sheila Stearns, outgoing commissioner of higher education.

Many of the regents commended UM President Royce Engstrom for launching the investigation in December, but regent Joe Thiel said the problem is not limited to UM.

Thiel asked that each campus evaluate the way sexual assaults are handled and report back to the board with ways to improve prevention and reporting methods.

“I take the reported incidents at the University of Montana very seriously, and I hope that lessons learned in the process of addressing these sexual assaults can be applied systemwide to ensure all university system students have the safe environment they deserve,” Thiel said.

Stearns and incoming commissioner Clayton Christian said they would work with campus leaders to develop a systemwide approach for dealing with sexual assaults and present the ideas to the board in March. Part of that will include talking with each university about educational approaches to preventing sexual assaults on campus, Stearns said.

“I will have a commitment from campuses to change any kind of appearance or actuality of culture of silence about this problem,” she said.

Engstrom said earlier this week that UM will work to make the school safer by educating students, improving the university’s communication when a sexual assault is reported and reviewing the athletic department’s response to possible sex crimes committed by athletes.