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University of Montana issues sex assault alerts, raises student concerns

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The University of Montana has sent out four alerts notifying its campus community about instances of sexual assault since the beginning of the semester.

While the alerts aren't new, they've raised concern among some students who feel the school could provide more information.

“These alerts have freaked me out because you don’t know who these perpetrators are,” said Emily Cook, a junior at the university who has spent this semester interning at the Women’s Resource Center. “You’re just walking around on campus and it could be anyone in your classes or anyone walking around."

The text and email notifications, labeled “Timely Warnings/Sexual Assault,” are delivered to students, staff and Missoulians who are signed up for campus alerts. Each gives dates of when the assault is said to have occurred and when it was reported to campus administration, along with a brief description of the incident.

text alerts

UM has sent out four alerts notifying its campus community about instances of sexual assault since the beginning of the semester.

None of the alerts issued this semester have included information about whether disciplinary action has been taken against the suspect, or details on whether they’re still allowed on campus.

The lack of followup has left students wondering what happened with these cases.

The alerts

The four warnings sent this fall — on Oct. 27, Nov. 18, Nov. 23 and Dec. 1 — all detail reports of sexual assault that have a connection to UM’s campus.

The Oct. 27 warning was sent after a report of sexual assault, fondling and stalking of “an individual attending programs on campus” was made. The assault was reported to have happened off-campus in the summer. That investigation originated within the jurisdiction of Missoula’s city police but evolved to include campus spaces, UM spokesman Dave Kuntz said.

On Nov. 18, an alert was sent out for a report made to campus police the day prior about a sexual assault at an on-campus residence hall in September. The suspect was known to the survivor, the alert said. There was no mention of an ongoing investigation.

Less than a week later, on Nov. 23, a second alert was issued for a sexual assault and strangulation of a student that took place in a dorm, also in September by someone the survivor knew. This alert, unlike the one sent Nov. 18, said there was an ongoing investigation.

The Dec. 1 alert was for another dorm assault that occurred just a few days prior. The suspect was known to the victim and an investigation was opened for this case as well.

There was also a timely warning sent out on Sept. 14, but it was for a drug-facilitated aggravated assault and didn’t mention anything about sexual violence.

Vague language

While the alerts do their job of notifying students and Missoulians of sexual assault on campus, the language is vague. They don’t detail whether an arrest has been made or if the suspect is still residing or attending classes on campus property.

Cook said the alerts can be upsetting, adding they raise  uncertainty and prompt a lot of questions.

Without any followup alerts about arrests or updates to cases, she said it’s easy for students to be left feeling like these assaults go unresolved and unpunished.

“It’s difficult for students not to see any consequences happening,” Cook said, explaining she understands there are certain limitations on what the university can disclose, but it does feel like nothing is being done.

“A lot of people don’t report what happens because they have no idea what difference it’ll make. I think the (campus police) should be transparent and maybe even just inform people of what they do when they receive reports like this so people understand their options,” she added.

She also imagines that these alerts being sent with no warning can be re-traumatizing for people who have experienced sexual violence and/or harassment in the past.

"It’s a nerve-wracking feeling, especially for people who have already been through that.”

Jen Euell, UM Student Advocacy Resource Center director, said she understands how the wording might be unsettling, and campus officials want to do everything possible to mitigate the impacts on their students. 

“It’s scary and I totally get that. A part of me wishes we didn’t have to send them,” Euell said. “I do feel like it can be triggering, especially for people who are survivors of trauma in the past.”

Cook does appreciate the language used in the alerts when it comes to putting blame on suspects and letting students know what resources are available to them, she said. Each alert reads “perpetrators are solely responsible for sexual assault” and that consent is always necessary involving sexual acts. Contact information for the SARC is also provided.

The resource center will sometimes reach out to survivors when they know an alert is being sent out to let them know it isn’t about their report, Euell added.

The ambiguity is designed to protect the identity of survivors and details of specific instances, University Police Chief Brad Giffin said. If someone is legally arrested, that is something that could be included in the alert.

The last two alerts that went out involve criminal investigations that have not been completed yet, Giffin said. Police reports were generated for both of those. He did not confirm whether any arrests have been made.

Some of the warnings mention that an investigation is ongoing, which can take the form of either a Title IX or formal criminal investigation. If the Title IX office initiates an investigation following the filing of a formal complaint, different laws, policies and considerations can prevent public disclosure of information.

 

Legal precedent

On a macro level, these warnings are intended to give the UM community information about what’s happening on campus, Giffin said, adding it’s hugely important for students who have experienced sexual assault to report it.

Campus administration also points to these alerts as a transparency effort.

“A transparent campus is a safe campus. We believe strengthening UM’s commitment to transparency is our responsibility as a public institution. These efforts to alert our students and the community of incidents on campus are just a portion of our deliberate work to prioritize transparency, safety and clarity at our university,” Kuntz said.

It’s important to note that these alerts are mandated by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, more commonly referred to as the Clery Act, which requires universities to issue these notifications to satisfy federal law, Euell said. If they aren’t issued, UM could face fines.

The Clery Act is a federal law requiring universities to report on-campus crime and to send “timely warnings” if there’s an ongoing threat to public safety.

“When a crime covered by the Clery Act occurs, campus officials are required to evaluate if there is a serious or ongoing threat to the campus community to determine if a timely warning needs to be issued to all staff and students,” the Clery Center website says.

“Timely warnings” are for incidents that happen within Clery geography, which encompasses campus spaces, on-campus residential facilities, public property and non-campus property, such as UM’s Greek houses, which aren’t university-owned but are university-affiliated.

Reports can be made to other university departments that aren’t the campus police, such as the Student Advocacy Resource Center or Title IX office, Giffin said. If the report is something that meets the criteria of a timely warning, campus police will be notified.

When asked whether campus police have seen an uptick in students reporting sexual assaults since the start of the fall 2021 semester, Giffin said he wasn’t sure and would have to wait until he has year-end statistics. On a few occasions, Giffin believes the alerts going out have galvanized other survivors to make reports.

While four sexual assault alerts in one semester might seem like a lot, the number of alerts sent out staggers up and down depending on what’s reported, Clery Compliance Professional Kelly Magnuson said.

In 2020, UM’s main campus took 11 reports of rape, two reports of fondling and zero reports of incest and statutory rape, according to their 2021 annual campus security and fire safety report. Statistics for 2021 have not been released yet. 

What’s next

Cook wants to see the university continue to issue these alerts and thinks it’s important information for UM’s students and staff to have. They have absolutely caught the eye of the student body and are a big topic of conversation.

Going forward, followup notifications about the status of investigations, and whether arrests are made, would be beneficial for campus and indicative that campus police are seeing these investigations through until the end and trying to make UM’s campus safer, Cook said.

When asked if campus police would consider sending out updates on investigations, Giffin said it’s not required but it’s something they may consider in the future.

Euell encourages people to come to the SARC if they need counseling services and/or want to provide feedback about the alerts.

The UM Associated Students didn’t return a request for comment.

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