U-New Mexico flunks feds’ test for sex assault response

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/22/u-new-mexico-flunks-feds-test-for-sex-assault-response/

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Students often do not know how to report sexual assault and sexual harassment at the University of New Mexico or where to turn for help in a broken system that violates federal law, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

The department, which launched its investigation in December 2014, recommended 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.

University President Robert Frank said the school had already taken steps toward making the campus safer in recent years and objected to conclusions that it failed to support students who reported assaults.

“Our strongest objection is with their conclusion that this is a hostile environment,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Education has scrutinized schools nationwide for failing to comply with federal laws aimed at protecting women on campus. It came as the Obama administration urged colleges to improve the way they respond to allegations of sexual assault.

But only two — the University of New Mexico and University of Montana — have been targeted for investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division over their handling of sexual assault reports.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said the agency launched the broader investigation after speaking with victims. In focus groups and interviews over the past year and a half, students have expressed reluctance to report sexual assaults because they lack confidence in the school’s response, federal officials said.

The University of New Mexico began to improve how it investigated allegations over the past year, but students, faculty and staff still did not fully understand the options for reporting assaults, the department found.

A confusing grievance process emerged from “significant gaps” in how school officials investigated sexual assault and harassment, federal officials said.

“Our findings reveal how a flawed system for responding to sexual assault fails all those involved — from victims seeking adequate protection, to accused students demanding fair hearings, to faculty looking for clear instruction,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a written statement.

Federal and school officials said separately that a meeting is the next step to reach an agreement on implementing federal recommendations from the investigation. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

“What I anticipate is we should start meeting with the university soon,” said Martinez, the U.S. attorney. “Ultimately, I’m hoping to come to agreement that would specify how we’re going to proceed.”

At the University of 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.

Both the Montana and New Mexico investigations came under a 1972 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.

In 2013, the year before the review, university records showed the New Mexico school of about 28,000 students had 11 sexual assault reports.

Written by Mary Hudetz

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