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Major Robinson, right, of the Montana Board of Regents, joins the discussion during the regents’ meeting in the Montana State University-Northern Student Union Building in Havre on Friday.

The hard lessons from the last few months at the University of Montana have not been lost on the greater Montana University System.

The Montana Board of Regents on Friday approved a systemwide policy clarifying existing requirements on handling sexual assault allegations.

And Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian reiterated that dealing with the issue of sexual assault is a priority for the university system, vowing to “get to where we believe the system needs to be, where students’ safety is the absolute highest priority.”

Since December, UM has struggled with the painful fallout of allegations of sexual assault involving students. The university conducted its own review of 11 cases, and two federal agencies – the departments of Justice and Education – are investigating the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations.

“The actions of a relatively small number of men on our campus have led to the shattered lives of a number of women on our campus,” UM President Royce Engstrom told Regents, who met Thursday and Friday in Havre. “We need to keep our focus on where the problem lies and what our goals are.”

To that end, both Engstrom and Christian vowed transparency – to the extent possible without violating student confidentiality – and better communications with the public and the media.

UM will hire a crisis communications specialist, possibly within days, Engstrom said Friday.

Top-level university administrators were out of town last week and thus unable to respond when emails among UM administrators were released to the Missoulian and Wall Street Journal as part of a joint public records request.

Those emails showed university vice president Jim Foley questioning whether an alleged victim’s talking publicly about her case violated the Student Code of Conduct. Foley also appeared angry over the media’s use of the term gang rape – instead of the university’s preferred term of “date rape” – to describe allegations of women being drugged and assaulted by several men.

Widespread publicity over the emails perhaps “creates a new emphasis and a new urgency” over the need to deal publicly and promptly with potentially damaging information, Christian said.

“I think it’s important that Royce is on the right track. … It’s important that everyone around him is sharing that vision and we know from the Board of Regents and the Commissioner’s Office and the community that we’re behind it,” he said.

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Engstrom told the board that he’s “keenly aware that in the short run there has been a cost to the reputation of our great university,” and that he knows the public is frustrated, particularly with the university’s inability to specify which students have been punished for sexual assault.

Of the 11 cases investigated by the university, three have been dismissed for lack of evidence; two weren’t pursued because the alleged victims didn’t want to take action; and one alleged assailant fled the country.

That man, along with seven others, will not be allowed to return to the university, Engstrom said. Another man was sanctioned, but appealed and saw the sanction overturned, he said.

Those cases were examined through Student Code of Conduct procedures, which demand confidentiality. Only one UM student, Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson, has been charged in Missoula County District Court with sexual intercourse without consent. He awaits trial.

Others accused, including in a case that was reported to Missoula police but not immediately pursued because of lack of evidence, were Grizzly football players. Last month, UM posted a new Student Athlete Code of Conduct that more clearly states infractions and penalties.

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The policy adopted Friday by the regents assures compliance with federal Title IX regulations, which prohibit gender discrimination, including sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The policy requires a Title IX coordinator on each university system campus, sexual harassment training for all employees, and perhaps most notable, clear policies for reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“Any campus employee informed of an allegation of sexual violence involving a student must promptly notify the Title IX coordinator,” the policy says.

It also outlines procedures for reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement, including in cases where the victim might be reluctant. For instance, a campus is required to report a sexual assault to law enforcement if the assault constitutes an emergency as defined by state or federal law.

Changing the culture surrounding attitudes toward sexual assault will require a cultural shift, Christian said. At UM, Engstrom has been working for more than five months on just such a shift, he said.

“Those are all pretty monumental battles the president is going to have to fight – that he is fighting,” he said. “I have confidence that he will continue on this track. I never want him to look back on that decision and say, ‘I wish I had taken the easy road out.’ ”

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

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