DILLON – The University of Montana could have moved more quickly when a student told a dean on Feb. 17 that a fellow student had drugged and raped her a week earlier, UM President Royce Engstrom told the state Board of Regents Thursday.
After speaking with the woman, Dean of Students Charles Couture contacted her alleged assailant and his attorney – the man had contacted one after being accused of assaulting another student the same night – and the university sent a campus-wide email alert.
The Missoula Police Department contacted the university after seeing the email, but the accused man, a Saudi exchange student, fled the country before the woman filed a formal police report.
“Did we do that all as perfectly and as rapidly as we could have?” Engstrom said after outlining the sequence of events to the regents, who met at the University of Montana Western. “Probably not.”
But Engstrom said that if the university had not issued its federally required notice when it did, just before 5 p.m. on the Friday leading into the three-day Presidents Day weekend, the man might have committed another “devastating” assault.
The issue of campus sexual assaults was already on the regents’ agenda before the Feb. 10 attacks were reported. All campuses had been asked to report to the regents on their policies and plans for dealing with sexual assault.
That focus arose as a result of two allegations of gang-rape involving UM students in December. UM hired former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to look into those reports, and her investigation, released in January, grew to include nine alleged sexual assaults involving students between September 2010 and December 2011.
When Barz turned in her report, she suggested that UM continue the investigation on its own, estimating such a probe could take at least a year. “The UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus and needs to take steps to address it to ensure the safety of all students as well as faculty, staff and guests,” she wrote.
However, Engstrom said Thursday that the university’s investigation is nearly finished.
“The team is working to resolve the last case in that investigation,” he said, adding it would likely be ready within a few weeks. “Does that mean we’ve solved the problem? Absolutely not.”
But as future cases arise, “we will do our utmost to handle those cases in a clear manner, a swift manner, a manner that cares for the victim and a manner that gets rid of the perpetrator.”
Engstrom said he’s also asked administrators “for a change in standards and expectations, particularly around our athletic program. I have received from the athletic program a new student athlete code. Essentially, it’s more rigorous, with a separate body who will do the disciplining of a student who finds him or herself violating the code.”
A UM Grizzly football player, Beau Donaldson, was charged with sexual intercourse without consent in connection with one of the cases cited in Barz’s investigation.
UM vice president Jim Foley and legal counsel David Aronofsky also are reviewing policies, protocols and communications surrounding sexual assault, and the university has contracted with a national expert to advise it on legal questions surrounding mandatory reporting, Engstrom said.
“There are quite a few areas of ambiguity we need clarity on,” he said.
Montana State University President Waded Cruzado likewise mentioned the need for clarity concerning federal regulations. But she said MSU created a task force to work on its sexual assault policies last April, after the U.S. Department of Education sent out a memo clarifying Title IX regulations, which among other things deal with sexual assault on campuses and at college functions.
“We want to plant and nurture a culture at MSU where it is clearly understood that sexual assault is a crime,” she said. “We are determined to shatter any conspiracy of silence.”
Board members questioned Engstrom closely about the situation at UM, which board member Major Robinson of Billings called a “crisis.”
Former Congressman Pat Williams of Missoula, who was just appointed to the board, asked whether there had, in fact, been a delay in issuing a search warrant in the Feb. 10 assaults, but Engstrom said he couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
Williams also urged the group to get specific about the problem.
“I think that the women both on and off campus have noticed that one word doesn’t seem to be used by anyone in authority, and that is the word ‘women.’ We heard about ‘students.’ This is about women being abused and we might understand it better if we used the word ‘women’ or ‘woman,’ ” Williams said. “This is a problem of us guys.”
Kelsen Young, the executive director of Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, chimed in during the public comment period with a reminder that “the women we’re talking about, on Feb. 10 or in January or in December, it’s personal for them. And if we lose them in this conversation, we’ve really missed the point.
“When I read quotes from the victim that ‘I haven’t left my dorm room’ (since the assault), we’re not meeting the mark.”
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