Feds: Victims felt traumatized after UNM sex assault probes

MARY HUDETZ, Associated Press

A U.S. Justice Department review of nearly 173 allegations of sexual harassment — including sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence — at the University of New Mexico included reports from women who described feeling traumatized as school officials investigated their complaints.

Findings released earlier this month from a 16-month Justice Department probe into the University of New Mexico’s handling of sexual harassment complaints found the school had violated federal laws as it dismissed allegations without properly weighing evidence, showed gender bias or insensitivity in its reviews, and took as long as eight months to investigate complaints.

Federal guidelines recommend that a school’s sexual harassment investigations are completed in 60 days.

University of New Mexico President Robert Frank said the investigation painted an inaccurate picture of the campus because it represented only a snapshot in time.

But Frank said he would cooperate with the government on its recommendations — which come after the school has already begun rolling out policy changes and awareness campaigns to make the campus safer.

“Department of Justice or no Department of Justice this has been our standard all along,” he said.

WHAT PROMPTED THE INVESTIGATION

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division opened its investigation after receiving complaints from victims over the university’s handling of their reports.

Much of the investigation, launched in December 2014, reviewed the school’s compliance with a law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. While better known for guaranteeing girls equal access to sports, Title IX also regulates institutions’ handling of sexual violence and is increasingly being used by victims who say their schools failed to protect them.

WHAT WERE INVESTIGATORS’ KEY FINDINGS?

Students, faculty and staff lack a basic understanding of their options for reporting assaults or where to turn for help, and the school’s broken system for handling complaints has created a confusing grievance process, the Justice Department said.

During the course of the investigation, school administrators already began improving how allegations are investigated, but there is still need for improvement, federal officials said. Frank, the university’s president, said the school’s recent efforts weren’t adequately represented in the report.

In one case, a student described how an investigator with the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity repeatedly called the person accused in the assault her “ex-lover,” despite reporting the two had no prior relationship, federal authorities said. Another student’s case was determined to have lacked “tangible” evidence that her attacker tried to strangle her, despite medical records showing she had redness and bruising on her neck, according to the federal investigation.

WHAT’S NEXT?

A meeting that has yet to be scheduled is the next step to reach an agreement on implementing federal recommendations.

The Justice Department recommends the university provide training to students and staff with information on how to report attacks. It also urged the school to revise its policies so it can promptly respond to sexual harassment, which creates a hostile campus environment.

But there’s little precedent for how the Justice Department might track steps for reform. The University of New Mexico is only the second school to undergo a Justice Department probe under Title IX into its handling of sexual harassment claims. The University of Montana was the first.

In Montana, school officials reached an agreement with the Justice Department requiring them to hire a higher-education consultant with expertise in harassment prevention to develop policies and training. The university also had to set a timeline for clarifying how students and staff report assault and harassment.