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"I want you to know that we take this very seriously," University of Montana President Royce Engstrom told members of the public during a January forum on the problem of sexual assaults involving students. UM vice president Jim Foley looks on at left.

As the fledgling administration of University of Montana President Royce Engstrom struggled to deal with escalating reports of assault and sexual attacks involving students, others on campus fought just as hard to damp down the severity of the situation.

Then-football coach Robin Pflugrad personally apologized to Engstrom when two Grizzlies players were tased at a party last fall – but blamed Missoula police for exacerbating the situation.

When Engstrom announced a January public forum to address issues surrounding allegations of student sexual assault, including gang rape, alumni relations director Bill Johnston grumbled to a receptive athletic director Jim O’Day that “this has a huge chance of being a disaster.”

And when Pflugrad acceded to a suggestion that all student-athletes be required to take a course on relationships – and that the Athletic Department pay for it – assistant athletic director Jean Gee put a quick kibosh on the plan. “I just feel strongly this is a bad idea,” she wrote, adding that athletes had little time in their schedules for another elective course.

This, despite the fact that Engstrom wrote in a memo that while the alleged sexual assaults weren’t restricted to athletes, investigations “indicated a disproportionate association with patterns of behavior of a number of student athletes.”

Emails from Engstrom, O’Day and former football coach Pflugrad were released Wednesday to the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal, which filed a joint public records request. The emails were heavily redacted, sometimes to the point where entire pages were black. Last month, the news organizations received similar emails from UM vice president Jim Foley and legal counsel David Aronofsky. Engstrom fired Pflugrad and O’Day in March, saying only that a change was needed.

Both the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education recently announced investigations into UM’s handling of sexual assault cases, while UM recently announced the NCAA has been investigating the Grizzlies football team since January. The Education Department review specifically concerns allegations against the football team.

“I think the fact that we worked so hard and quickly to rewrite our student-athlete conduct code is an indication that we had concerns within the athletic program about clarity of expectations,” Engstrom said Wednseday.

“Grizzly athletics is a powerful force in Montana and within the university community and people have strong feelings about it, and mostly for the best reasons. We want to make sure Grizzly athletics thrives and contributes to the university and the community in the ways most appropriate for a university athletic program,” he said.

***

In his first public forum in January on the issue of sexual assaults involving students, Engstrom made reference to a small number of student-athletes.

That’s the forum to which Johnston, the alumni director, so objected.

“I think this has a huge chance of being a disaster. What can Royce say or Jim (Foley) but I am sorry, I cannot answer that. …. When digging a hole stop digging.”

Johnston didn’t want to go to the meeting, but didn’t want to miss it, either.

“I might call (a Holiday Inn employee) and see if there is any way we can listen in,” he wrote to O’Day on Jan. 16, the day before the meeting. The employee “can be trusted to not tell others about us listening in on the meeting.”

O’Day replied that he, too, wanted to see the meeting but also was reluctant to attend.

Johnston wrote back: “I think I will send a friend with a laptop camcorder so I can listen real time, but I do not want to be seen in the audience,” he wrote.

Gee, meanwhile, fought hard against the idea of singling out athletes for the proposed Intimate and Family Relationships course taught by UM’s Counselor Education Department, which put the cost at $6,000.

“To be quite honest, with my experience with the guidance counselor dept, that $6,000 would be much better spent elsewhere,” she wrote O’Day in February.

Students could be encouraged to take it, she suggested. Gee said Tuesday that UM eventually decided not to require athletes to take the course, which would count as an elective.

As part of UM’s initiative to deal with sexual assault on campus, all incoming freshmen will be required to take an online course on issues including sexual assault.

Gee was also protective of the Athletic Department’s role in disciplining student athletes.

“I think any hint of questioning what is okay or not okay with regard to student athletes relinquishes our ability in Athletics to do our jobs. ...,” she wrote to O’Day in January. “I just worry that if we appear to be too defensive with Royce right now, he may get angry and then we don’t move forward in any productive way.”

***

Although UM football players had several high-profile encounters with the law in recent years, the 2011-12 school year was relatively quiet until October, when two Missoula police officers tased cornerback Trumaine Johnson and quarterback Gerald Kemp while breaking up a post-game party.

Pflugrad apologized to Engstrom in an email, but added, “The attitude and demeanor of the police is what escalated the entire situation.”

A police review of cellphone videos of the incident showed no use of excessive force by officers, Police Chief Mark Muir announced in November.

UM was sharply criticized when a local TV station showed Foley walking with Kemp and Johnson into the law offices of prominent attorney Milt Datsopoulos – on a Sunday. That criticism increased when UM penalized Johnson and Kemp – who eventually pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct charges – by making each sit out a quarter of one football game.

Foley said at the time that other sanctions were imposed, but that he couldn’t talk about them because of Student Conduct Code confidentiality.

“Why is it that other universities (redacted) suspend the players or even dismiss them from the team?” read an email sent to O’Day from a member of the public.

“There will be some form of internal disciplining within our program for the embarrassment caused to the university,” O’Day replied. “... As for the legal consequences, we cannot be too quick to judge.”

O’Day responded to a similar email by writing that “A wrong move ... a wrong statement, etc. ... could mean financial consequences from a lost lawsuit against any of us as well. Thus, the reason for letting this take its course.”

***

UM’s own investigation into allegations of sexual assault involving students eventually focused on 11 cases between September 2010 and February 2012. Only one student, Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson, faces a criminal charge in connection with those cases and remains suspended from the team.

The Missoula Police Department investigated a rape complaint, filed in March about an alleged February incident, against quarterback Jordan Johnson, but Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said Wednesday his office has yet to decide whether charges will be filed in that case.

In December 2010, a woman reported to police that she’d been assaulted by four football players, possibly after being drugged, but no charges were filed.

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@gmail.com, or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.

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