Sexual assault 

UM and Title IX

About a year ago, Missoula police told University of Montana head football coach Robin Pflugrad that a woman had filed a criminal sexual assault complaint against UM athletes. Yet, as UM President Royce Engstrom acknowledged during a community forum last week, an unnamed "campus employee"—Pflugrad—failed to report the allegations to his supervisor, as he should have.

The Missoula County Prosecutor's Office found insufficient evidence to charge the suspects after the woman said four men assaulted her during an off-campus house party Dec. 15, 2010.

School administrators made aware of such allegations are typically required under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to conduct investigations independent from law enforcement inquiries. UM only launched its formal investigation last month, after two additional students reported to a campus employee that they were assaulted in separate incidents this past fall. UM is now investigating five alleged assaults.

Title IX guarantees men and women equal educational opportunity. "If assaults and rapes are occurring, that obviously is going to interfere with students' access to education," says Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, in New York.

Title IX reporting requirements, however, are complicated by the fact that it appears the woman who came forward in December 2010 did not directly contact the university.

"Schools also have to get consent from the complainant or the victim before they're going to do certain actions including an investigation," Migdal says. "That's the line that they're going to be faced with, if somebody who's not the student reports an off-campus sexual assault."

Because sexual violence in an academic setting compromises educational opportunities, student conduct codes use a lower threshold than that employed in the criminal justice system to evaluate guilt. In the criminal justice system, suspects must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At UM, sexual aggressors are found guilty based on a preponderance of evidence, meaning it's more likely than not that they committed the crime. Students who violate the conduct code are subject to suspension and expulsion.

UM's Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Lucy France says the university is working to clarify reporting requirements among campus staffers. "I think we need some self-examination of how we comply with this," she says. "If we can do a better job of making a safe environment, that's what we want to do."

UM Executive Vice President Jim Foley says President Engstrom has made it very clear that all criminal allegations involving students should be brought to Engstrom.

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