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The U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of its yearlong investigation into how the University of Montana handles cases of sexual assault Thursday, and presented the school with a blueprint for change moving forward.

The DOJ, in cooperation with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, detailed its investigation in a series of lengthy reports presented in a news conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Missoula.

Federal officials praised the university’s cooperation over the past year and said the resulting voluntary agreement will make UM a national model for Title IX rights while protecting women as they pursue their college education.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in educational programs and activities where federal financial assistance is at play.

“We’ve worked together to create a blueprint that can serve as a model for campuses across the nation – to ensure women’s education opportunities aren’t limited by sexual harassment or sexual assault,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin Jr. of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

The joint investigation found that women on campus had been “unfairly belittled, disbelieved or blamed” when reporting incidents of sexual assault or harassment, and that school policies – while well intended – were confusing and must be streamlined.

The university must make stronger efforts to protect those who file complaints of sexual assault from future harassment, and it must implement mandatory reporting policies for staff across campus.

“We heard from women who lived through sexual assault and were unfairly belittled, disbelieved or blamed for speaking up about what was done to them,” said Austin. “We heard from advocates who have seen the negative consequences of systems failures to address the risk and aftermath of sexual assault.”

The investigation also detailed issues involving the University Office of Public Safety and its response to reports of sexual assault dating back to 2009.

The report found that campus police officers lacked the training and procedures to deal with sexual assault. It called the Office of Public Safety’s absence of policies on the subject “a troubling oversight.”

Per its agreement with the DOJ, the university must hire an independent reviewer to ensure that the Office of Public Safety achieves “measurable changes” in its response to and investigation of sexual assault. The reviewer will also report publicly on the university’s implementation of the DOJ agreement.

“There will be some costs associated with this,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “We’ll have three different people on the outside associated with these efforts in both an advisory and monitoring mode. The university will pay for those. It’s part of the agreement.”

Investigators praised the university for taking steps to address past problems relating to sexual assault and harassment, from hiring an independent reviewer in March 2012 to revising the school’s Student Athlete Conduct Code.

It also launched a mandatory online tutorial for students last fall. Known as Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness, or PETSA, the program aims to increase students’ knowledge of sexual assault.

But investigators also found that the university had not fully eliminated what the report described as a “hostile environment based on sex.” Several victims of sexual assault shared concerns with investigators about coming forward out of fear of retaliation and a lack of response by the university.

“There’s not a campus that couldn’t do better with respect to sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Austin said. “Every part of this is critically important to ensuring that during the search for the truth, the rights of women are fully respected.”

To date, Engstrom said, more than 14,800 students have taken the mandatory PETSA tutorial. The DOJ asked the university to supplement the training with in-person training, enabling students to ask questions and learn from the feedback of their peers.

Engstrom said UM faculty members also will be required to take a similar program starting this fall.

“PETSA was a high visibility way of getting the word out to our students,” Engstrom said. “We’ll be putting in place a similar module that will apply to university employees starting this fall.”

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After the news conference, Clayton Christian, commissioner of the Office of Higher Education, repeated what investigators said – that sexual assault and its uneven response wasn’t unique to UM.

He said his office and the Montana Board of Regents will digest the lengthy report and discuss implementing the DOJ’s recommendations for UM across the entire Montana University System.

“This is a situation that exists across campuses,” Christian said. “We will do whatever we can to disseminate this message systemwide in Montana.”

Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of communications with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, agreed. He said regents have discussed the state’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault, and ways to simplify reporting.

He said it was a discussion regents would likely revisit now that the DOJ has released its findings and concluded its investigation.

“I think we as a system have a lot to learn from this,” McRae said of Thursday’s report. “We’re going to need to digest it. This gives us an opportunity down the line to have some checkpoints and to see that other campuses do.”

The agreement signed between UM and the DOJ also requires the university to develop a resource guide on sexual harassment and sexual assault, which must be posted on the school’s website and distributed to students when a complaint of sexual assault or harassment is filed.

The university must develop annual climate surveys for all students to assess their attitudes and knowledge regarding sexual assault, harassment and retaliation. Regular mandatory training on the issue must continue, the DOJ said.

UM must also coordinate its efforts with the Office of Public Safety and the Missoula Police Department, the latter of which remains under investigation, along with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.

“The recommendations are forward looking and it’s a situation where we can continue to make improvements to the University of Montana,” Engstrom said after the conference. “The findings are what they are. At this point, I’m focused on the agreement we’ve signed and putting in place the actions we’ve agreed to.”

Austin said the university has roughly three years to comply with the Title IV and Title IX agreement signed with the DOJ. The Office of Public Safety will remain under review until it can show a sustained period of compliance for a set period of time.

Success, Austin said, will make UM “the gold standard” for other universities to follow.

“Students need to know exactly where to go when they have an incident occur to them,” Austin said. “They need to know exactly where to go, and what’s going to happen when they go there. The people making the evaluation have to know what to do. All those people have to be trained in exactly what it is they’re supposed to be doing.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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