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UNM sexual assault report finds shortcomings, confusing policies

Attorney Jill Pilgrim discusses her firm's independent assessment of sexual assault in University of New Mexico student housing and athletic programs Thursday in the UNM Student Union Building

Attorney Jill Pilgrim discusses her firm’s independent assessment of sexual assault in University of New Mexico student housing and athletic programs Thursday in the UNM Student Union Building. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

A new independent assessment, noting that the University of New Mexico takes its obligation to safeguard students and staff “very seriously,” is recommending it simplify “its web of policies impacting sexual violence to create a single accurate, user-friendly and easily accessible sexual misconduct policy.”

The report by the New York law firm Pilgrim & Associates also found that UNM staff, administrators and students are either unfamiliar with or confused by the university’s unclear policies.

UNM retained Pilgrim last summer – following two alleged sexual assault incidents – to investigate and determine the campus climate regarding sexual violence in student housing and in its athletic programs.

The report was presented to the campus community Thursday morning in a public meeting in the Student Union Building by Jill Pilgrim, the lead investigator.

In its key findings, the report says the “overall climate … is one of being aware of the risks associated with sexual violence while feeling safe.” Most of those interviewed and surveyed over a two-month period last fall said UNM is committed to educational and preventive programs “in an effort to protect the well being of students and staff.”

However, the attitudes and perceptions of UNM staff, administrators and students “are best summarized as unfamiliar, unclear and confused,” the report states.

When the assessment began in September 2014, UNM had 17 policies in place that a victim of sexual violence or someone seeking to report such an incident could access for information and assistance. Quantity, however, does not necessarily mean quality.

“While UNM must be commended for having policies in place to redress allegations of sexual violence, unfortunately several of these policies fail in significant respects to comply with the dictates” of law and governmental recommendations, the report states.

One problem that the report calls a “dilemma for UNM, and all universities in the U.S.,” is alcohol-related sexual violence in off-campus housing, coupled with a lack of jurisdiction. Although UNM “has no way of tracking students’ use of alcohol and sexual violence incidents at off campus locations (i.e., the Cottages, private residences), it is still required by Title IX to address the effects of sexual violence occurring off campus that impact a student’s educational experience,” the report states.

“UNM staff and faculty consistently bemoaned the overconsumption of alcohol by UNM students in their residential environments and other locations, as a major contributing factor to sexual violence,” it states.

The report was generally favorable to UNM athletics, noting that except for reports of sexual violence early last year, “the UNM athletics department is not plagued with student-athletes who are involved in rampant acts of sexual violence. … UNM student-athletes are no more likely to engage in acts of sexual violence compared to other UNM groups.”

Pilgrim was joined by co-investigator Rita Smith, an expert in domestic violence and sexual assault issues who has worked with the National Football League in addressing domestic violence, and UNM Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre, who leads the school’s efforts to educate the campus on sexual assault matters.

Thursday’s presentation was opened by UNM President Bob Frank, who called sexual violence “one of the most difficult and complex issues facing college campuses today.”

It is unclear what effect, if any, the report will have on a Department of Justice investigation of how UNM treats reports of sexual violence. That investigation – announced in December – is just getting underway. Lawyers from the DOJ were in the audience Thursday, and the report had been forwarded to that agency.

Two alleged incidents – one in 2013, one last year – paved the way for the independent assessment, which cost the university just under $60,000.

The Pilgrim team spent several weeks last fall conducting interviews on campus to determine how well UNM is meeting its legal and ethical obligations. The assessment also included focus groups and a telephone line for people to speak anonymously with team members.

UNM Climate Assessment Report on Sexual Violence

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