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Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Even before the U.S. Department of Justice announced its investigation of the University of New Mexico late in 2014, the school had taken steps to improve how it handles sexual harassment and violence – setting up a task force, changing policies, commissioning an independent audit and creating a special response unit.
The issue of sexual assaults on campuses took a front seat nationwide in 2011 when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sought stricter enforcement of Title IX in a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities. That’s when UNM officials started conversations about how to meet those requirements, said Dianne Anderson, a spokeswoman for the university.
Then a “wake-up call” in 2013 pushed the university to take action after two students, in separate incidents, reported they had been groped on campus within the same week.
“When we tried to come together to handle these gropings, we realized we’re rusty on how to talk to each other,” President Bob Frank said. “We looked at it and realized we’re not doing as a good job as we need to do. That was the wake-up call for us.”
UNM created a special response unit for victims of sexual assault, called SART, that summer. The team consists of medical, counseling, law enforcement and administrative personnel to help a student deal with an assault. At the same time, the university increased police patrols on campus.
University officials also began working on updating the student policy handbook, called the Pathfinder. And the university expanded its Sexual Harassment Policy to include sexual misconduct and violence as a severe form of sexual harassment, providing those who report sexual assault with federal protections.
But a few months later, UNM’s handling of sexual abuse claims again came under fire after a female student claimed two football players and another man sexually assaulted her in a car after a party. The UNM Police Department charged the three men, but District Attorney Kari Brandenburg later dismissed the charges due to a lack of evidence. Both parties have filed lawsuits against UNM, and the alleged victim also filed a Title IX report with the school.
A few months after the incident, in the summer of 2014, Frank launched a presidential task force made up of faculty, staff, students and community leaders to explore ways to reduce sexual violence on campus. Frank cited as reasons a doubling of on-campus residents thanks to new dormitories; increased conversations about sexual assaults on college campuses nationwide; and recent reports of sexual assaults at UNM, including the one involving the two UNM football players.
In fall 2014, UNM officials launched Lobo Respect, a website that focused on educating students about sexual assault and harassment among other topics. The site also attempted to provide students with the tools to deal with such incidents or report them to the appropriate parties.
A Lobo Respect Student Advocacy group emerged at the same time with a focus on advocating for student safety.
University officials also commissioned an external audit, called the Pilgrim Report, on UNM’s sexual assault reporting policy.
But before that audit was completed, the Department of Justice announced in December 2014 its plans to review the university’s sexual assault policies.
It’s only the second university in the nation to have its policies investigated by the DOJ, and UNM officials say they are baffled as to what triggered it.
The DOJ said it had received complaints but would not provide details.
“We had asked them directly,” said Frank. “They refused to tell us what the facts were even though I explained to them if you talk to us about it we would be happy to correct it immediately.” The University of Montana is the only other university investigated by the DOJ. The U.S. Department of Education often investigates universities and their sexual assault reporting policies as they pertain to civil rights, but that federal agency isn’t involved with this case.
Representatives of the Department of Justice came to campus in April 2015 and interviewed students, staff and faculty. They also collected the university’s sexual assault reports.
It’s unclear when DOJ will release its report.
Meanwhile, the Pilgrim Report’s findings were released in January 2015. It said many students and university employees didn’t know how to report sexual assaults, that some of the policies were so oddly worded they confused students and university employees and that several UNM policies and procedures didn’t fully comply with federal law. In the wake of the report, UNM adopted numerous changes, the foremost of which officials say was the unification and simplification of the sexual misconduct policy.
Previously, different rules applied to students, staff and faculty but the new policy adopted in 2015 made the bar for what actions qualify as sexual assault or harassment the same for everyone on campus. The punishment for breaking those rules still varies for students, staff and faculty.
Following the Pilgrim report, the university also added programs to student orientation that teach students what qualifies as sexual assault or consensual sex. The programs also strive to teach students how to drink responsibly.
In 2015, university officials, partly in response to recommendations by the presidential task force formed in 2014, also launched the Lobo Respect advocacy center for those who have suffered sexual assault or harassment among other crises. The center also serves as a space for students to confidentially report sexual assault or harassment.
The center is staffed during the day and has a hotline students can call during off hours. The university also developed a mobile application called Lobo Guardian that includes features that make it easier to get in touch with police in emergency situations.
What is the process for filing sex assault claims?
So what happens when a student or employee reports a sexual assault?
Victims can report cases of sexual assault or harassment by: filing a Title IX report through the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity; reporting it to UNM police; or doing both.
Filing only a Title IX report will not result in a criminal charge. UNM administrators will investigate the report, and if they find that the action violates UNM’s sexual misconduct policy, the student or employee can be reprimanded. Punishments range from educational conferences to expulsion or job termination.
The criteria for violating UNM policy does not necessarily rise to the level of a criminal offense, said Title IX administrator Heather Cowan.
Students or employees can also file a report with the UNM police department. Police conduct their own investigation and determine whether there is enough cause to send to the District Attorney’s Office to consider charging the accused.
The police and Title IX investigations are separate, and the two groups do not share information.
Students or employees also have the option of anonymously reporting sexual assault or harassment incidents. Students can report incidents in places such as the Women’s Resource Center or the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) Resource Center, the Student Health and Counseling Center among other support centers on campus. An anonymous report won’t generate a Title IX complaint, but it may be included as part of the university’s Clery Report.
According to the Clery Report, which is data the university reports to the federal government, four “forcible” sex offenses were reported in 2012 and 10 in 2013 at UNM. In 2014, the federal government introduced subcategories of sexual assault labeled rape and fondling. At UNM in 2014, there were 12 rape reports and seven fondling cases.
Meanwhile, if a student is expelled for sexual misconduct, the reason for the expulsion does not go on the student’s record.
UNM says that is due to federal privacy laws regarding student information.
The university will put a note on the transcripts saying the student was expelled for “disciplinary” reasons. It is the same phrasing used whether a student violated the university’s sexual misconduct policies or got caught cheating on academics multiple times.