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DOJ criticizes UNM’s response to sexual assaults

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal investigators in a letter released Friday accused the state’s flagship university of failing to adequately respond to incidents of sexual assault and harassment — the bottom line in a report that the University of New Mexico said was not an accurate portrayal of the university.

The report made public Friday by U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is the result of a highly unusual 16-month federal investigation.

“Campus sexual assault and sexual harassment are civil rights issues,” Martinez said. “They are primarily perpetrated against women and undermine their basic rights. When perpetuated against students, sexual assault and sexual harassment deny them the right to live and learn in a safe educational environment.”

UNM officials didn’t address specifics in the report, but they did question it.

“While we respect the efforts of the DOJ, we believe its report is an inaccurate and incomplete picture of our university,” UNM President Bob Frank said. “Even so, we receive it in a spirit of cooperation and pledge to continue our campuswide improvements to combat this complex issue.”

The DOJ acknowledged in the 37-page document that UNM has worked to improve its response to reports of sexual assault and harassment, including revamping policies and creating a student advocacy center, but Martinez said more is needed to ensure that the university complies with federal anti-discrimination laws.

UNM reported 19 sex-related offenses in 2014, 10 in 2013 and four in 2012, according to an annual security report.

During the investigation by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, the university provided documentation of its sexual assault and harassment policies and campus safety and police investigations to the Justice Department in January 2015. In April 2015, DOJ investigators came to the main campus to interview students and employees.

UNM officials said they tried, even before the DOJ announced its investigation, to change the way it deals with sexual assault and harassment.

Those efforts included a university-commissioned review, announced in September 2014, of UNM’s sexual misconduct policies. That group presented its findings in January 2015. They found that administrators and students were either unfamiliar with or confused by the university’s policies.

The report, in part, led the university to adopt a new sexual misconduct policy in May 2015.

University officials also launched an advocacy center — LoboRespect — for students to confidentially report incidents of sexual assault or harassment.

DOJ criticisms

The DOJ, after reviewing thousands of pages of policy, along with administrative complaints and police reports, leveled criticisms at what it called the university’s at times overlapping or confusing policies that could discourage students from reporting cases of harassment. The report says UNM failed to publicize the processes for reporting sexual harassment.

The university’s internal administrative process of dealing with sexual assault or harassment cases, which is handled by the Office of Equal Opportunity, was accused of inadequate investigations.

In one case, the DOJ said a woman reported she was  choked during an assault. Her medical records, which OEO had copies of, from the same day showed “redness and bruising” on her neck.

The investigator wrote, “Complainant herself reported strangulation, but the report did not demonstrate that evidence of such was found,” the report says.

Heather Cowan, the university administrator in charge of these investigations, said she couldn’t speak to specific cases mentioned in the report.

The report also said administrators influenced the OEO investigation process. The report charged that “top-level administrative offices” said to get an investigation “done” because one case was in the media.

Frank denied that assertion.

“Findings based on anonymously supplied information make it impossible for us to respond to particular allegations in the report,” Frank said.

Cowan said her office has never been pressured to rush an investigation, but she did say administrators have questioned her office about the status of cases.

The DOJ also said the Office of Equal Opportunity took too long to complete its investigations. In one case, the report says, a student withdrew from the process because the investigation was taking too long and the “emotional toll was too great.”

Students also told investigators, the report said, that they expressed an “unwillingness” to report sexual assault or harassment because they feared UNM would retaliate or do nothing.

The DOJ report also found that UNM police officers received “inconsistent and intermittent training” in dealing with sexual assault and harassment.

Some officers were also accused of treating those reporting sexual assaults in an “insensitive and humiliating manner.”

Kevin McCabe, chief of UNMPD, disagreed with those characterizations. He said his detectives do receive training in handling sexual assault cases.

And though UNM officials don’t agree with some parts of the report, they want to get started with meetings with the DOJ quickly.

“We want to get it done and get it done as soon as possible,” Frank said.