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Regents' lawyers to review UM sexual assault emails before release to media

Regents' lawyers to review UM sexual assault emails before release to media

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No more University of Montana emails concerning UM’s handling of sexual assault cases will be released to news organizations until Board of Regents attorneys review those requests and the emails in question.

Among the emails released late last week: one showing that UM Vice President Jim Foley asked whether an alleged rape victim violated the Student Code of Conduct by speaking publicly about how UM dealt with her case.

And another from then-Dean of Students Charles Couture, in response to a query from Foley as to why the Missoulian used the term “gang rape” in stories instead of the university’s preferred term, “date rape.”

“Jim, I used that term when I accused the four football players of rape, in addition to one accomplice, because that is what it was,” Couture replied.

Those emails came in response to a joint Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal. Other news organizations have since filed similar requests.

Although UM legal counsel David Aronofsky said last week that more emails would be released Monday, that won’t happen for at least another couple of weeks, according to Kevin McRae, the regents’ associate commissioner for human resources.

“This way, we can all be on the same page in terms of vouching for the credibility and the integrity of the materials we produced,” McRae said Tuesday.

Neither Foley nor UM President Royce Engstrom has responded to the contents of the already released emails.

UM and its campus police, along with the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, are the subjects of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation – announced earlier this month – into how they handle sexual assault cases.

The regents meet Thursday and Friday in Havre. Although the sexual assault issue isn’t on the agenda, Higher Education Commissioner Clay Christian will be prepared to answer questions from the regents, McRae said.

“His intent is to, as soon as possible, be able to accurately say he’s done a review of all of those UM emails and will report back publicly,” he said.


Until now, Aronofsky has handled Freedom of Information Act requests about alleged sexual assaults at UM, but “he’s backlogged,” McRae said Tuesday. Besides, McRae said, Aronofsky leaves next week for a work-related trip to China.

Regents chief legal counsel Cathy Swift and staff attorney Jessica Brubaker will take over the process of reviewing the requested emails to make sure privacy concerns are appropriately addressed, McRae said. Montana State University legal counsel Leslie Taylor may also be involved, he said.

“The bottom line is, where there are interests of student privacy, those decisions need to be made on a case-by-case analysis,” he said. “We don’t want to appear to be claiming the cloak of FERPA or privacy.”

FERPA is the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and Aronofsky often cites it when declining to release information about the alleged sexual assaults.

“There’s been some level of struggle when it gets to that level of parsing words,” McRae said. “You just want to make sure every document starts with the presumption of it being public information.”

McRae said that bringing Swift into the process would ensure that Christian is up to speed on the contents of the emails being released.

That way, McRae said, “he can be ready to speak to the information going out ... in a way that is real and not shifting into spin mode.”

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

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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 system-wide policy clarifying existing requirements on handling sexual assault allegations.

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A second federal investigation has opened into allegations of sexual assault at the University of Montana, already the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice review.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights “will examine whether the university responded promptly and appropriately to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence,” a DOE spokesman said Tuesday.

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