ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been nearly two years since the Department of Justice shocked the University of New Mexico community by telling the school it would investigate the way it handles sexual misconduct. That was in the winter of December 2014.
Administrators waited in limbo while federal investigators reviewed UNM books, conducted interviews of rape victims and pored over administrative policies. In April of this year, the feds found UNM had failed to comply with federal gender anti-discrimination laws. The DOJ findings included criticisms of UNM’s labyrinthine policies on sexual assault, and lengthy and inadequate investigations.
UNM has been largely powerless since spring, but it did simplify policies and tweaked training on how to deal with sexual assault.
And now, in the fall in 2016, UNM finally has a road map of where it’s going, a three-year calibration with the Department of Justice that will hopefully make UNM a safer place to be.
“We are deeply committed to civil rights enforcement, and sexual assault and sexual harassment are civil rights issues,” said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez of the District of New Mexico in a Monday statement. “Students have the right to live and learn in a safe educational environment, and this agreement provides the foundation that UNM will build on to ensure that this right is both recognized and respected.” UNM was just the second school to be investigated by the Justice Department for how it handles sexual misconduct.
Earlier this year, UNM administrators shared the result of a 3,000-person survey that found nearly one in 10 students said they had been sexually assaulted while at UNM and that nearly one in four reported they had been sexually harassed within the past year.
Under the agreement, the Justice Department will not sue UNM through federal anti-gender discrimination laws. In return, UNM will work with justice for the next three years, revamping policies, training efforts and investigation methods.
President Bob Frank said meeting the DOJ’s criteria will be challenging, but he’s confident UNM can do it. “This is not an ending,” Frank said. “This is the beginning.”
As part of those efforts, UNM will vastly increase the number of face-to-face training sessions on sexual misconduct. Currently, new freshmen take the training, but the DOJ report notes UNM will offer this type of training to all students. The university has until Feb. 1 to build the infrastructure to make the training possible. And the training will be mandatory for all new students starting in the 2017-18 school year. This includes transfer and graduate students who may not have participated in the face-to-face training.
The federal government will require UNM to generate a spreadsheet to track every incident of sexual harassment or assault.
By Dec. 1, the university will have to submit its plans for any revised policies and procedures dealing with handling sexual assault to the Justice Department. The department will then review those suggestions, and offer comments and potential changes. Then, the university will have about a month to notify students about the changes.
The agreement also calls for UNM to share its policies, training curriculum and surveys about safety on campus with the DOJ in the years to come. Frank said he was pleased with the quickness with which the agreement was met. And he said he knows it doesn’t help the people who were already victimized on campus.
“I hope they’ll look at this with new eyes and say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing better,’ ” Frank said. “And I hope they’ll accept our profound apology and sense of recognition that we know people were hurt previously.”