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Justice Department launches probe into sexual assault at the University of Montana

Adjudication of campus sex assaults was subject of Center investigation

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University of Montana campus

Dan Bowling/Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced it had opened multiple investigations into how local authorities and school officials handled a series of recent sexual assault allegations at the University of Montana. The adjudication of sexual assault cases on college campuses was the subject of a series of stories by the Center for Public Integrity.

Questions involving the handling of sexual assault cases have engulfed the university and its hometown of Missoula since late last year, when the school announced it had hired an outside investigator to look into allegations that two university students were drugged and gang-raped in December. That probe eventually grew to include other cases; the Justice Department said that at least 11 reported sexual assaults involving UM students had occurred in an 18-month period. The university faced criticism for how it handled the cases, as did the Missoula Police department and the county attorney. Several of the cases involve allegations against players for the school’s popular and successful football team, the Grizzlies. The university fired the school’s athletic director and head football coach in late March.

The Justice department said it had opened a Title IX compliance review and Title IV probe regarding the school’s response to sexual assaults. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 both bar sex discrimination, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, in educational programs.  The department also announced it had begun a so-called civil pattern or practice investigation focusing on allegations that University of Montana Office of Public Safety, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office may have failed to adequately investigate and prosecute alleged sexual assaults against women in Missoula. The department will also coordinate with the Department of Education on a related sexual harassment complaint against members of the UM football team.   

Attorney general Eric Holder called the allegations “very disturbing.” He said the department’s pattern or practice authority “enables us to ensure that law enforcement agencies are doing what is necessary to combat this despicable crime without discrimination, and we take that responsibility seriously.” City, police and university officials pledged their full cooperation.

Starting in late 2009, the Center for Public Integrity published a series of pieces looking at how sexual assault cases are handled on college campuses. The Center reported that students who have been the victim of sexual assaults face a depressing array of barriers that often either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time. The Center also found that students found “responsible” for sexual assaults in campus judicial proceedings often face little or no punishment from school judicial systems, while their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down.