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Federal harassment complaint filed against University of Montana, football players
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Federal harassment complaint filed against University of Montana, football players

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The federal Department of Education is evaluating a complaint alleging harassment by members of the University of Montana Grizzlies football team.

“I was told they would be ‘trained,’ ” the person who filed the complaint wrote. “Now we have rapes, gang rapes, cover ups.”

The Missoulian received a heavily redacted copy of the complaint from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights this week after filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The documents are contained in the investigatory files of an open case regarding alleged violations of civil rights statutes,” the agency wrote the Missoulian.

The complaint names the University of Montana, the Grizzlies football team, UM President Royce Engstrom, former President George Dennison, as well as an athletic director and football coach. The last two names are redacted, as is the name of the complainant.

Last month, Engstrom abruptly fired athletic director Jim O’Day and football coach Robin Pflugrad without specifying reasons. Engstrom’s actions followed weeks of investigation by the university into allegations of sexual assault, including gang rapes, involving university students.

While not singling out football players, Engstrom has said that an independent review, headed by former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz, indicated part of the problem stemmed from a small number of UM athletes.

The Office for Civil Rights document asks the complainant to specify the school or department involved.

“Football team,” the complainant wrote.

“Have you tried to resolve the complaint through the institution’s grievance process, due process hearing, or with another agency?” the form asks.

“Yes,” the complainant responded. “... I was told they would be ‘trained.’ ”

The federal Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. If OCR decides to investigate a complaint, a process that usually takes about 30 days, it sends letters of notification to those involved.

No letter has been sent to the University of Montana, according to OCR’s response to the Missoulian. OCR is still evaluating the complaint, so has not yet decided whether to conduct a formal investigation.

Engstrom said Wednesday he was unaware a complaint had been filed until contacted by the Missoulian.

In outlining its reasons for the redactions, the Office for Civil Rights wrote that disclosure of some details could hamper its work.

“Additionally, OCR anticipates that the parties could alter their positions based on the contents of the information included in the case file to date, which could impede OCR’s ability to obtain an objective and accurate understanding of the facts.”

Publication of certain information “could lead to the construction of defenses, modification of testimony, or similar efforts to frustrate enforcement proceedings,” the agency wrote. “OCR has determined that the release of this information could potentially hamper OCR’s investigation and law enforcement efforts with regard to this case.”

The complaint was filed with OCR’s Seattle office on Jan. 11. Much of the information is redacted because the records were compiled for law enforcement purposes.

That initial complaint alleged “harassment/hostile workplace by football team,” according to the OCR form. The date of that complaint was redacted because “a law enforcement proceeding is pending or prospective and the disclosure of information about it could reasonably be expected to cause some articulable harm.”

The complaint said the last act of discrimination occurred on Dec. 31, 2011.

And it said: “Note also that two current members of the team were tasered and arrested at a party this season. Charges were bargained down to nothing, but the police department investigation did not find excessive force was used. This is also the same team that had accused-of-murder-but-intimidated witnesses (name redacted) on it.”

The first reference is to cornerback Trumaine Johnson and quarterback Gerald Kemp, tased in October as police tried to break up a rowdy post-game party at Johnson’s off-campus apartment. Both originally were charged with misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer, but pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct.

The only Grizzlies football player accused of murder was Jimmy Wilson; he was acquitted in 2009 in a fatal shooting two years earlier in California. In 2010, Wilson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct after biting a woman shortly after returning to the football team.

After Wilson was accused, O’Day brought evidence from Wilson’s legal file – including copies of photographs taken in the emergency room of the bite mark on the woman’s leg – to the Missoulian.

He told the Missoulian in November that “the information came from Jimmy and his attorney, just to give their point of view. ... We came to the newspaper to talk to the publisher about situations, and that was in the file. I said there are two sides to every story.”

***

The OCR form asks the complainant to detail why the alleged discrimination is believed to be based on sex, or why the action is believed to have been retaliatory.

“There are additional issues now,” the complainant wrote. OCR redacted what followed. The complainant also cited a January Missoulian story about the challenges that law enforcement and prosecutors face in investigating and filing charges in rape cases.

“This is a serious issue,” the complainant wrote – and then more information is redacted because of law enforcement and privacy issues.

If OCR decides the complaint merits investigation, and if that review shows UM violated federal civil rights law, the university will have to come up with a remedial plan, the agency wrote.

Otherwise, it wrote, “OCR will be required to initiate enforcement action against this recipient.”

In response to the form’s final question, the complainant said there is written information to help the Office for Civil Rights understand the complaint.

The complainant also filled out the answer to the penultimate question:

“What would you like the institution to do as a result of your complaint – what remedy are you seeking?”

The response is redacted.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.

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In a pair of red-and-white, 2-inch heels, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom proved that he could walk in women’s shoes Wednesday – but not too far.

The men’s march was part of an international event sponsored locally by the UM Student Assault Resource Center to stop rape, sexual assault or gender violence. The event on the UM campus is seven years old, and while no one could say for sure, one could surmise this is the first time a university president slipped on a pair of pumps in support of the cause.

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