UPDATE: Deal Reached in Montana University Sex-Assault Probe

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA — Federal officials reached agreements with the University of Montana after a yearlong investigation into mishandled sexual assault reports on campus that require the university to revise its policies and adequately respond to allegations, federal officials said Thursday.

Investigators heard from women who were assaulted then unfairly belittled, disbelieved or blamed for speaking up about what was done to them, said Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin Jr.

“We found a pattern or practice of a number of women victims expressing the same concerns,” Austin said. “We had some concerns about retaliation in those making complaints.”

The investigation began after 11 assaults involving university students were reported over an 18-month period. Federal attorneys said on May 1, 2012, that they would also look at sexual assaults reported across Missoula over three years.

Investigators were examining whether gender discrimination affected the response by the university and law enforcement.

Austin said issues of “deeply engrained gender stereotypes” and “institutional concerns about negative publicity” helped cause the problems. Such issues are not unique to the Montana campus, he said.

The two agreements — one with the university and the other with the campus police force — will enable all women to enjoy the full educational benefits of the university, federal officials said.

The agreement with the university requires the school to provide a grievance procedure for the prompt resolution of sexual harassment and assault allegations, and to respond to allegations of retaliation by students who make assault claims.

Additionally, the university must act to eliminate a hostile environment based on gender, ensure adequate training and make sure students know that sex-discrimination is prohibited. The deal makes sure that assaulted students know exactly where to go and what will happen when they do so, officials said.

The Department of Justice agreement with campus police requires it to improve its response to sexual assault and work with independent groups to develop the reforms detailed.

Campus police also must show the agency has put into place systems to prevent practices of constitutional violations and gather data to assess sexual-assault reports.

The university anticipates it will comply with the agreement within two years, according to federal officials. Independent monitors will ensure the university follows it, university president Royce Engstrom said.

The school has already begun implementing many of the things in the agreement, Engstrom said.

“This has been a difficult time, a challenging time for all of us,” he said.

The problems found at the University of Montana and the settlement will become the gold standard for other schools to follow, federal officials said.

“Because of this agreement and the institutional reforms, all students, men and women will be safer at the university and in that community,” U.S. Attorney for Montana Mike Cotter said.

Cotter said many family members have attended the school.

“The experiences and education enjoyed by my children, nieces and nephews at the ‘U of M’ have successfully launched them all into adulthood. As parents, when we send our children off to school, whether it is grade school, high school or college, we believe that they will be in a safe and nurturing environment,” Cotter said. “Here, at the University of Montana, the framework now is in place, to attain this goal.”

Federal officials lauded the university for its response, and both sides were confident the improvements will be put in place and complied with.

The investigation into the city and county prosecutor’s handling of sexual-assault allegations is ongoing, officials said.

An agreement with Missoula city police may come soon, Austin said. But County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has not been cooperative, he added.

If that continues, the federal agency could file a lawsuit, he said.

Van Valkenburg said he doesn’t believe the Justice Department has the legal authority to investigate his office’s decisions on which cases he decides to prosecute or not. Van Valkenburg met with Austin and Cotter after the news conference for a discussion that may open the door for future talks but not necessarily a resolution.

“I wouldn’t describe our office as uncooperative, although we are not cooperating with what the Department of Justice wants,” he said. “As long as they are being uncooperative, we have no reason to do anything different on our end.”

Enrollment at the school for the spring semester was 14,201, a decline of 505 students. University spokeswoman Peggy Kuhr said in March the main reason for the drop was student financial situations, but the publicity over the investigation also may have been a factor.

Over the past year, former University of Montana running back Beau Donaldson pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse without consent in a 2010 case.

A jury earlier this year acquitted starting quarterback Jordan Johnson of a rape charge, with Johnson saying he had consensual sex with an acquaintance.

Federal officials declined to discuss specific cases or to say if any cases went unprosecuted without good reason.

A U.S. Department of Education investigation was folded into the Justice Department probe last year.

The NCAA has been investigating the Grizzlies football team since the end of January 2012 for unspecified allegations, but there has been no update in that investigation.

Engstrom said he does not know when that investigation will end.

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