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Sex assault, harassment reports triple at UNM

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

FIRST OF TWO PARTS:  As UNM awaits the results of a Department of Justice investigation into how it handles sexual assault cases, the Journal obtained records showing the number of Title IX reports filed in the last two years.


The number of sexual harassment and assault reports filed at the University of New Mexico tripled from 2014 to 2015, but university administrators attribute the increase to educating students and employees about what qualifies as sexual harassment and encouraging them to report violations.

Records obtained by the Journal show that 138 people filed Title IX reports in 2015 with UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity, up from 46 reports in 2014.

Fifty-two of the reports filed in 2015 were for sexual assault and 72 were for sexual harassment. Investigations resulted in one person being fired, two people being suspended and one person being expelled.

The 2015 total is higher than peer institutions University of Colorado Denver, which saw 42 reports in 2015, and New Mexico Sate University, with 19 reports. UC Denver and NMSU have student enrollments between 15,000 and 20,000 students, while UNM’s was roughly 27,300 as of fall 2015.

Heather Cowan is the UNM administrator in charge of making sure the school complies with the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex at the nation’s colleges.

She said the increased reporting is positive because it shows people are aware Title IX is an option to report discrimination. It doesn’t necessarily mean, she said, there has been an uptick in discrimination on campus. Other UNM officials are inclined to agree with her.

Caitlin Henke, the interim director of UNM’s resource center, said students and employees now have a clearer sense of what constitutes sexual assault. “Sexual violence has been a pervasive problem on this college campus and college campuses everywhere for a really long time,” Henke said. “We’re in a culture shift. We’re all acknowledging this is happening.”

The university is awaiting the results of a Department of Justice investigation into how UNM handles cases of sexual assault and harassment.

The numbers

Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Law was adopted in 1972 and states individuals should be free from discrimination based on gender in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Many people associate the law with gender equality in college athletics, but, in recent years, it’s been used as a tool to address sexual harassment on college campuses.

Cowan said UNM has been trying to teach students and employees about Title IX and the protections it offers against gender discrimination.

Sexual assault and harassment cases make up the majority of Title IX complaints filed with the university. Other Title IX complaints include dating violence, which is harassment that takes place between two people dating, and sexual exposure, cases like flashing or sharing nude photos of a person without their permission.

Title IX violations include everything from off-color comments that offend to stalking to rape, and they include any interaction between anyone with ties to the university, even off campus.

Title IX defines sexual harassment as any unwanted sexual attention, physical or otherwise, that interrupts a student’s “learning environment.”

In a few cases, a student might be suspended or expelled following the university’s investigation. Such discipline doesn’t require the same level of proof as a criminal investigation. In other cases, Cowan’s department will often have an “educational conference,” or basically a talk with students, when they do something crude or stupid, but not necessarily offensive – say, drawing penises on a chalkboard, as happened in one instance.

A majority of the sexual assault reports are dismissed due to a lack of information; 39 of the 52 sexual assaults reports were dismissed because Cowan’s department didn’t have enough information to pursue the case. For example, a victim might not know the identity of the alleged attacker. At that point, the case closes.

On the other end of the spectrum, the university expelled one person and suspended another who resigned following a sexual assault investigation.

Of the 72 sexual harassment cases, 25 were dismissed due to insufficient information.

Sixteen of the remaining cases resulted in educational conferences; eight cases were closed because investigators didn’t find evidence of a Title IX violation; 10 cases were referred to the Dean of Students Office, the Office of the Provost or the Human Resources Department for further review; and four people were banned from campus.

One person was suspended and another person was fired.

The university redacted any details of the accusations and all names, as well as whether the accused or alleged victims were students, staff or faculty. The university said it withheld the information that could be used to reveal personal details about students in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Report requirement

Title IX requires those in positions of authority, professors or administrators, to report probable instances of sexual harassment they hear about on campus. For example, if a professor overhears students talking about a probable rape, that professor must report what he or she heard to Cowan. At that point, her office reaches out to the person involved. But the alleged victim often does not want to file a report.

“We say we have a process and we want to talk to you. Also, if you don’t want to talk to us, that’s your right,” Cowan said. “Frequently, they don’t respond to us. Or, if they respond, they say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ ”

Some students, Cowan said, don’t want to deal with the emotional trauma associated with reporting sexual assault or harassment.

For those who file a report, Cowan and other administrators are able to provide resources the alleged victim wouldn’t have received, such as where to go for counseling, health care or changes to their class schedule.

Coming Monday: A look at the changes UNM has implemented to increase awareness of Title IX.