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UNM sees rise in civil rights complaints as a positive step

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Civil rights complaints at the University of New Mexico have tripled since 2015 – and administrators say that might actually be a good sign.

The Office of Equal Opportunity, which handles discrimination investigations at the state’s largest university, received 479 complaints in 2016 and is on pace to see about the same volume this year.

That’s compared with 161 in 2015 and a five-year average of 140 between 2011 and 2015.

“We think it’s for a variety of reasons,” Francie Cordova, the university’s OEO director, told the UNM Board of Regents’ Audit and Compliance Committee last month. “The national conversation, people know where to report, there’s more trust.”

Sexual harassment, which encompasses sexual assault, is the No. 1 complaint, which Cordova said is “pretty standard nationally.” It makes up 37 percent of this year’s allegations.

The next-largest category, after “other/nonjurisdictional,” is gender/sex discrimination, which represents 12 percent.

Officials say the OEO activity signals more awareness of the problem and how to handle it.

UNM is currently training all students about sexual misconduct prevention as part of its 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice; its in-person training program has so far reached more than 17,000 students across the main and branch campuses. Faculty and staff, meanwhile, must take an online, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment course.

Another potential reason for the reporting spike: The university in 2015 implemented a policy that requires all faculty and staff to report to OEO upon learning about an incident of sexual misconduct or assault.

“Seeing an increase in reporting is a positive first step in shifting the culture – it shows that students are becoming aware of the policies at UNM, starting to believe that people will listen to them, provide resources, and take action to help create a safer campus,” UNM Dean of Students Nasha Torrez said in a statement. “It also shows that students are able and willing to access some of the resources that are available.”

Officials at RAINN, a national nonprofit that fights sexual violence, see the data similarly.

RAINN’s vice president of public policy, Rebecca O’Connor, said victims are often reluctant to report sex crimes, but it’s critical for institutions to make them comfortable doing so, thus helping them tap into “support, medical care and justice.”

“While a sharp increase in reports is, on its face, startling, we do view this data as good news,” O’Connor said in an email.

But one local women’s right advocate said it’s hard to know if the rise in complaints amounts to progress.

Pamelya P. Herndon, executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center, questioned whether it reflects increased comfort in reporting – or an increase in problematic incidents. She said UNM has better educated its students about how to report sexual misconduct incidents, which could contribute to the flood of new complaints.

But, she said, “I would never say that having more sexual harassment complaints means things are improving.”

UNM has come under fire in the past for its handling of sexual misconduct, sparking a DOJ investigation and UNM’s subsequent three-year agreement with the federal agency.

Many of its mandates involve OEO, which has been expanding. The staff has grown to 10, including five investigators; Cordova said it had just two investigators when she took over two years ago. She also touted the professional nature of the current crew, which includes attorneys and a retired Albuquerque Police Department commander.

The office also has forged new agreements with other campus departments – like the UNM Police Department and Torrez’s office – to foster information sharing about individuals’ backgrounds and patterns.

“I think we’re on the right track, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” Cordova said.

OEO handles more than sexual harassment cases. It also investigates claims related to many forms of discrimination, including age, race, religion and disability.

So far this year, approximately 17 percent of OEO’s complaints have triggered full-fledged investigations.

Of those that do not proceed to cases, OEO determined nearly half, 46 percent, were outside its jurisdiction. Another 19 percent were withdrawn.

OEO also uses “informal resolutions” to handle some lower-level issues. For example, if numerous complaints emerge from a single department, OEO might visit the department and conduct what Cordova called “targeted training.” If someone is accused of telling inappropriate jokes, OEO staff could start with a conversation explaining the problem and then monitor the situation for the next 90 days.

The changes have engendered more trust and contributed to the uptick in complaints, Cordova said.

In its latest “campus climate survey” completed last spring by 736 students, 54.6 of the respondents said UNM would likely support a person reporting sexual misconduct and 50.5 percent said the institution would likely take action to address factors that may have led to the sexual misconduct. More than a third indicated the university was likely not to take the case seriously if it involved an athlete or a member of a powerful fraternity.

Lawrence Roybal, interim vice president for the Division of Equity & Inclusion at UNM, said the institution has worked to promote conversation on “critical issues” that may have contributed to the rise in reports.

“We are pleased that these efforts are resulting in greater awareness and an increase in the utilization of a variety of valuable resources to address important issues, including the Office of Equal Opportunity and many other platforms,” he said.


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