This week, Missoula residents are reading about our community in Jon Krakauer’s book, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.” Around the nation, many others are learning about Missoula for the first time as the book hits the shelves and is covered in the news. Whatever your opinion of the book, it graphically demonstrates that sexual assault is a pervasive problem that ruins lives, and that it happens in even the most desirable of communities.
We write together not as a rebuttal to the book but to reinforce the hard work of many, many committed people on the campus and in our city who are working diligently to care for survivors of sexual assault; to bring to justice those who, through due process, are found to commit assault; and to decrease the actual occurrence of sexual assault. Our community’s collective efforts constitute the next chapter in this story, the chapter that demonstrates we have learned from the past and have dedicated ourselves to making our city and our campus even safer.
Through our agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education, the city and the university committed to establishing policies, procedures and practices that are improving our own situation and are serving as a guide for other communities. A DOJ blog post on April 20 said this about Missoula’s efforts:
“This first of its kind multi-pronged approach to combating sexual assault -- which reaches from the campus to the courthouse door -- has resulted in significant improvements in the response to sexual assault within the Missoula community. We, along with our colleagues at the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, are working with leaders from across the community as they implement these agreements so that whenever sexual assaults are reported, policies and procedures are already in place; first responders and investigators are trained to handle the report appropriately; and supports and services are more readily available and better coordinated. It is with this kind of focused attention and collaboration that sexual assault can be eradicated from our communities and students can feel safe and supported in school.”
For the city, some key steps taken include establishing a Special Victims Unit dedicated to investigating sexual assaults, using advanced techniques informed by the survivor’s trauma response. We now have an in-house advocate for people reporting sexual assault. We have created new and stronger policies and operating procedures that have been reviewed and revised by a multi-disciplinary group of community partners. Our officers and other responders have undergone approximately 3,800 hours of advanced or in-service training specifically addressing sexual assault. We engage in constant communication with the advocacy community, with prosecutors and with medical examiners.
At the university, we have engaged in extensive education about sexual assault through mandatory education for all students and employees. Our online tutorial for students has been successfully completed by almost 24,000 students and has been sought out by more than 20 other universities. Our police officers, too, have undergone more than 900 hours of specialized training. Our Student Conduct Code and Student-Athlete Conduct Code have been rewritten. We have added personnel to our police department and our investigative staff. Our students are determined to make campus safer through special programming and dialogue that they have initiated.
We are seeing results in the city and at the university. Increased reporting of sexual assault is an indication of greater trust in process and people. Increased levels of survivor participation in the investigation provide for a greater likelihood of action being taken. Our efforts are reviewed by external advisors who provide us with unbiased and constructive feedback. Countless people have worked around the clock to make Missoula a safer place. And there is much more good work being done within the advocacy community, within other law enforcement agencies and in the County Attorney’s Office.
None of us want to be characterized solely by the narrative in Krakauer’s book, and we can’t deny that we had some terrible episodes in our past. At the same time, we can all commit to working tirelessly to write the next chapter in our history -- a chapter of responsiveness, compassion and determination to care for all of our citizens.
-- John Engen is the mayor of Missoula. Royce Engstrom is the president of the University of Montana