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UNM grapples with sexual assaults on campus

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A task force of two dozen University of New Mexico students, faculty, staff and rape response experts is meeting weekly this summer to brainstorm ways to prevent sexual assault on campus, educate all campus populations on prevention, and offer a report to the university president at the end of July.

On-campus sexual assault is an issue that’s making headlines on several fronts. President Barack Obama last year signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, requiring universities to report rapes and to adopt disciplinary and preventive policies. Last month, a task force he created came out with its final report.

Also, studies report that 1 in 5 students nationwide – usually female – are sexually assaulted during their college years, and that most do not report the attack.

UNM police officer Christine Chester attended the task force. Its members also include faculty, staff and students.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM police officer Christine Chester attended the task force. Its members also include faculty, staff and students.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Closer to home, the topic made the news when in April, a female UNM student accused two male UNM students and another young man of rape – an allegation that rocked the campus, where such reports are rare.

UNM officials say her allegations did not prompt the forming of the task force, which advances actions they had already initiated. At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, UNM created a sexual assault response program that streamlines services for alleged sexual assault victims, and simplifies how they can report attacks and get support.

The task force intends to be more proactive, preventing assaults before they happen, said Dean of Students Tomás A. Aguirre.

“We want to be able to identify everything and anything that the university is doing to reduce the amount of sexual violence on campus, and to create and foster a safer community for all of our members,” he said.

While the rape allegations may not have been the impetus for the task force, they have increased awareness and sparked debate.

The District Attorney’s Office last month tabled prosecuting the three young men – two UNM student football players, the other a Central New Mexico Community College student – who were charged with rape and kidnapping after the student alleged they sexually assaulted her in a BMW.

The prosecution was put on hold because 60 days passed without the UNM police presenting prosecutors with enough evidence for them to bring the case to a grand jury, according to Kayla Anderson, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office. However, the case can still be reopened.

Last month, Anthony Bleus, defense attorney for one of the accused men, claimed the accuser was lying about being raped. He showed members of local media five brief videos of her behaving in what appeared to be a sexually aggressive manner that night. In one video she appeared to be grabbing the crotch of a man upon whose lap she appeared to be sitting, and in another, performing what appeared to be a lap dance.

Her attorney sharply criticized Bleus’ showing the videos, and said they show behavior of a person who had been given a date rape drug.

The stalled status of the case has no impact on the school’s internal investigation or its need for a task force, according to Aguirre, who said the school is still investigating the student’s allegation, separate from the DA’s office.

“There’s still an open investigation being run by the Office of Equal Opportunity, which is responsible for handling allegations of sexual violence,” he said last week.

UNM President Bob Frank called for the formation of the Sexual Violence Task Force two months after the rape allegations. Its first meeting was June 5 in Aguirre’s conference room.

Its members include students and faculty, as well as staff from UNM’s campus housing and Greek life offices, the Women’s Resource Center, and the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico.

The group will meet every Thursday this summer, and continue indefinitely once the school year resumes, possibly on a bi-weekly basis, said Aguirre, who will present an initial report to the president at the end of the month.

Aguirre said it’s important that everyone is up to date on current policies and definitions. “Within a year, every student that comes into the institution will have to have some kind of training that addresses sexual violence,” he said. “If there are any populations that are not getting any training, we want to make sure we are filling those gaps by the end of the summer.”

That is already being done to some extent, he said.

Federal guidelines obligate college campuses to publicly report campus sexual violence and other crimes, and to implement preventive and disciplinary measures. Additionally, the Clery Act signed in 1990, requires college campuses receiving Title IX funds to annually report sex offense and aggravated assault statistics, among other data.

According to UNM’s website, where its stats are posted, two sexual assaults were reported in 2008; six in 2009; two in both 2010 and 2011; and four in 2012. Numbers for 2013 will come out around September, according to Lt. Tim Stump, public information officer for UNM police.

Aguirre acknowledged that the low numbers are probably misleading. “I know nationally, the information we receive is that over 80 percent (of on-campus sexual assaults) are never being reported …” he said.

He added that alleged victims might also report to one organization but not another, causing UNM’s data to skew lower than accurate.

Still, “if it was only one report of sexual violence a year, that would still justify the effort in my mind,” Aguirre said of forming the task force. “I feel as Dean of Students, every student should have the safest experience possible.”

Summer Little, foreground, discusses the agenda for a meeting of UNM's Sexual Violence Task Force on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Summer Little, foreground, discusses the agenda for a meeting of UNM’s Sexual Violence Task Force on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

That, some say, is no easy feat. “This is a very large job at an institution of this size,” said Summer Little, task force member and director of the Women’s Resource Center. “We have a moment in time at UNM to make some positive changes and we’re ready for it.”

Debuting in August, 2013, UNM had already put in place a new program called SART (Sexual Assault Response Team), which simplified the process by which those who allege having been sexually assaulted at UNM can get police assistance, counseling and support from campus administrators.

Specifically, SART:

• Provides transportation by the UNM police to Albuquerque SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) Collaborative, an office at the Family Center staffed by nurses specially trained in doing rape exams;

• Connects victims who want counseling to the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, staffed 24 hours a day, and to counseling with UNM’s student health center;

• Trains UNM police officers to become SART officers, who’d be dispatched to an assault call; and

• Allows students to report assaults to the Dean of Students or the Office of Equal Opportunity.

A student found responsible for sexual assault faces suspension or expulsion, with the length of the suspension depending on mitigating factors. Aguirre said that because his office doesn’t have prosecutorial powers, kicking students out of school temporarily or permanently is its strongest punishment. Student victims can separately initiate criminal cases, but some don’t for fear of exposure, disbelief or ridicule.

Angela Catena, a counseling education Ph.D. student at UNM who also works in the women’s resource center, said UNM’s recent attention to the issue of sexual assault is encouraging: “I also hope this will help motivate students who have trouble finding their voice” to come forward and report sexual assaults, she said.

The SART program was brought to UNM by Kathy Guimond, who retired as chief of UNM police at the end of June. She was on a team that initiated it at Northern Illinois University, where she worked in law enforcement before coming to UNM.

“The UNM police department is committed to the principles of SART,” Guimond said in an interview shortly before she retired. “Ultimately, it’s all about providing service for the victim.”