University of Montana President Royce Engstrom acknowledged in a public forum Tuesday evening that the school has a problem with sexual assaults.

Engstrom identified at least five cases that are now part of an ongoing investigation into sexual assaults both on and off campus. That investigation started with two reports that came in early December.

"I want you to know that we take this very seriously," Engstrom told a standing-room-only crowd of about 125 people gathered at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park.

Engstrom addressed the crowd - which included the mayor, the chief of police, state legislators, university and UM student leaders - for about 15 minutes before opening the floor to questions that were for the most part respectful but pointed.

Engstrom said the entire university community must take action.

"We are all responsible to take actions," said Engstrom, who said sexual assault "will not be tolerated."

The president outlined a three-pronged approach that included widespread education about sex assaults for students, improvements in university communication and a thorough review of the athletic department's response to possible sex crimes committed by UM athletes.

Engstrom said the current investigation, which was announced in mid-December and is headed by former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz, indicates that part of the university's problem has stemmed from a small number of UM athletes. But the problem is larger than that.

"We're working hard to keep sex assaulters off our campus no matter who they are or where they come from," the president said.

But Engstrom said UM must also improve communication both on campus and with off-campus resources such as the Missoula Police Department. He made a pointed reference to a "gap" identified in a preliminary report issued by Barz on Dec. 30.

In that case, the president said, an assault that had been reported to Missoula police was also reported to a university employee. That person said nothing else about the report, failing to notify a supervisor.

"This is the gap in reporting pointed out by our investigator, Diane Barz," Engstrom said.

***

The question-and-answer session started abruptly with remarks from Ian White, who said he was a Missoula social worker for 20 years.

White blamed the problem, which he said was "gang rape, not sex assaults," primarily on football players.

"I think we're glossing over the issue," White said. "The issue is football."

While that opinion appeared to be shared by a few, Engstrom and others in the crowd disagreed with White.

"I have to respectfully disagree that this is an issue of football and power," Engstrom said.

If evidence points to football players, that evidence will be pursued, he said, but the problem isn't confined to athletics.

Engstrom's comment was reinforced a short time later by a woman who identified herself as a victim of a sex crime.

"The problem is in Missoula, not just UM," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.

The woman said she was dealt with professionally and respectfully when she reported the crime committed against her to health officials at UM's Curry Health Center.

"I just wanted you to know they're doing a good job," she said.

In fact, many in the crowd voiced appreciation for Engstrom stepping forward and addressing the investigation and underlying issue.

UM has been tight-lipped for the most part, partly because of federal requirements that limit what can be said about sex crimes.

"I think this is the right thing to do," said Darla Sather, who urged the university to have a hot line that students can call with information about sex crimes. "I think they've been too quiet on this, so this is a good step. I've been very concerned, and I feel better having heard the president tonight."

***

Educating students about sexual assault was a common theme, but several people made it clear the focus of that education should not solely be about how to avoid being victimized.

Instead, it needs to forcefully target possible offenders.

"There is no excuse for a sexual assault, regardless of the condition of the victim," Engstrom said to Sentinel High School student Valkyrie Jensen, who worried that victims are sometimes blamed because they've been drinking. " ... there is no situation where the victim is at fault."

In fact, UM must do all it can to support victims and "identify and punish assaulters," the president said.

To that end, Engstrom said that while Missoula is rife with rumors about assault cases, the focus needs to fall on establishing facts that lead to justice, either through the legal system, the university student conduct code or both.

"There are many rumors out on the street," Engstrom said. "We need to work on converting rumors into evidence, if possible."

State Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, noting the presence of the state's new commissioner of higher education in the crowd, said she'd like to see the entire university system take up the issue.

Commissioner Clay Christian said, in fact, that the UM investigation is the first item on the state Board of Regents' agenda Thursday, and that the regents will look to make sure that "the right precautions are in place across the system."

Engstrom said the university will host another forum with students returning from winter break on Jan. 25, and said educational efforts will continue throughout the spring semester.

He urged anyone with concerns or information about incidents on or off campus to contact Lucy France, UM's director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. France is part of Barz's investigating team.

France's office can be reached at (406) 243-5710.

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