HAVRE (AP) — Leaders of the Montana college system unanimously approved Friday a new policy for handling sexual assaults, the latest response to a rape controversy that has subjected the University of Montana, its football team and even the city of Missoula to a federal gender equality investigation.
The policy calls for prompt investigation and written conclusion of all complaints. And key members of the Montana Board of Regents, hoping to ensure that all the state's campuses comply with federal and state gender equity laws, made it clear that their analysis of the university administration's handling of the situation isn't over.
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this month opened its investigation into the way the university and the city responded to sexual assault and harassment reports, which prompted a second investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
The university has come under fire for mishandling rapes over the past two years, particularly in the cases involving football team members. The football coach and athletic director were fired in March, mostly without explanation, but a cloud still hangs over the program.
Emails obtained recently by the Missoulian show that the vice president of the University of Montana, Jim Foley, even sought to punish a student who spoke publicly about how the school was handling her report of being raped. The university also urged the use of the term "date rape" rather than "gang rape" in a case involving allegations of rape against four UM football players.
The university has so far not responded to the details of the emails.
The Board of Regents on Friday morning gave initial approval to a new three-page policy aimed at ensuring such cases are properly handled. It also aims to ensure compliance with the Montana Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
An early and unanimous committee vote, after just a few minutes' worth of discussion, sent the policy ahead to a second and final vote later in the morning. The new policy requires formalized training for all employees, proper reporting of sexual assaults, and policies aimed at protecting victim confidentiality.
"In light of all the activities lately, this is very important to the board," said regent Major Robinson. "We need to have this in place and make sure there is consistent training taking place at all levels on the campus."
University of Montana President Royce Engstrom spoke briefly, saying the policy and increased interest in such issues represent "some good" that has come from the situation.
"I do want to say how much I do appreciate a system-wide approach to this policy," Engstrom said.
The campuses are directed to appoint a coordinator to ensure compliance with federal Title IX rules and to ensure students and staff are notified of the position, under the policy. The training requires all employees to be aware of the policies and requires advanced training for those likely to field complaints of sexual assault.
"Each complaint filed will be promptly investigated by the campus to determine what occurred," the Montana University System policy reads. "The parties have the right to an adequate, reliable and impartial investigation of complaints, the right to an equal opportunity to present witnesses and other evidence, and the right to the same appeal processes."
The policy indicates that there will be a written conclusion, with notification to parties involved, for each sexual assault or harassment case. University medical workers subservient to other confidentiality laws are exempted from the requirement to report knowledge of sexual assault.
The policy also instructs the new campus Title IX coordinators to assist students who want to lodge sexual assault complaints with local police.
The Montana Chapter of the American Association of University Women has sent a letter to the regents asking the board to take a number of actions, including development of protocols for handling sexual violence cases.