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DOJ to investigate UNM sex assault response

Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre talks Friday about the DOJ inquiry into UNM's response to student complaints about sexual assault and harassment. Dianne Anderson UNM's director of communications, is at right. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre talks Friday about the DOJ inquiry into UNM’s response to student complaints about sexual assault and harassment. Dianne Anderson UNM’s director of communications, is at right. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the University of New Mexico’s response to student allegations of sexual assaults and sexual harassment, citing what it called “multiple complaints” about UNM.

Campus officials were taken by surprise Friday and said they were disappointed because of all the new programs the school had implemented.

The university received a phone call about 8 a.m. advising that an announcement would be forthcoming. A formal letter from the DOJ later in the day included a request for information.

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“The Department of Justice has received complaints regarding the University of New Mexico’s response to alleged sexual harassment, including sexual assault,” the letter states.

In 2013, the university received 11 reports of sexual assaults on campus. This year, so far, there have been eight.

The letter from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was initiated in part under a law that proscribes sexual harassment on campuses that receive federal funds.

“We have reached no conclusions regarding whether the University of New Mexico has violated these statutes,” the letter said. “To permit us to make a full assessment, we request that the University provide information and documents that will assist the Department in evaluating the allegations and the University’s policies, procedures and practices for responding to reports of sexual harassment, including sexual assault.”

The university has until Jan. 9 to respond.

Jack Fortner, president of the Board of Regents, said he welcomes the DOJ investigation.

“I don’t see it as a bad thing,” he said. “The fact is, it will provide us with some valuable input. It never hurts to get outside opinions. An investigation from the DOJ can’t be all bad.”

UNM President Bob Frank, noting that the investigation is apparently based on student complaints, said the university has made great strides in the past two years in developing a proper response to such allegations.

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“UNM has made substantial progress,” he said in an interview. “We take this with the utmost of seriousness. We don’t believe we are a university out of control.”

UNM was rocked by allegations earlier this year that two Lobo football players and another man raped a student. After a lengthy investigation, prosecutors declined to bring charges. The attorney for one of the suspects showed reporters cellphone videos of the encounter that showed the alleged victim’s active and apparently willing participation. Her lawyer later said the woman could not remember what happened for several hours and believes she was drugged.

Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre, meeting with reporters, said he was extremely disappointed by the investigation, especially in light of “all the hard work by so many people over the past year.”

Life goes on as usual Friday for University of New Mexico students, at the time unaware that campus practices and policies on sexual assault and harassment are under investigation by the Department of Justice. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Life goes on as usual Friday for University of New Mexico students, at the time unaware that campus practices and policies on sexual assault and harassment are under investigation by the Department of Justice. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM is asked to provide extensive documentation including grievance procedures on sexual misconduct, the student code, the Student-Athlete Conduct Code, information on individual complaints and alleged perpetrators for the past four years, guidelines on alcohol and drug use by students, policies on campus safety, agreements with local law enforcement agencies on sexual harassment, conduct involving fraternities and sororities and other documentation.

Over the past year, UNM has taken a number of steps to deal with sexual assaults and harassment, including:

  • A Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence that resulted in a Sexual Molestation and Assault Response Team. Members include UNM resource centers – the Women’s Resource Center, the LGBTQ Center and ethnic centers, Student Health and Counseling, the Rape Crisis Center and the UNM Police Department.
  • The creation of LoboRESPECT, a student-centered advocacy, response and education campaign.
  • With guidelines from the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights, an educational outreach training on sexual violence that was presented to more than 10,000 students this semester.
  • Formed a Provost’s task force to streamline various departments that address different aspects of laws dealing with violence against women.
  • A new Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy that includes clear statements that victims and accused have equal rights during investigations and the disciplinary process.
  • Requested an independent assessment to gauge attitudes and experiences regarding sexual assault in the UNM community. The University Counsel just received the assessment and is reviewing the recommendations.

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