UM, city hire expert to evaluate changes to sexual assault response

By on May 17, 2013

by Martin Kidston

Independent Record

 

MISSOULA — With other colleges watching, the University of Montana will contract with a national expert on police response to sex crimes to help evaluate changes being made to the school’s Office of Public Safety.

Thomas R. Tremblay, the former chief of police for the city of Burlington, Vt., will measure the progress made by UM’s campus police department as it works to improve its response to sexual assaults on campus.

The DOJ recommended the move last week and the university agreed, as did the Missoula Police Department. The city and university hope to share the costs of retaining Tremblay’s services, which aren’t to exceed $30,000, according to UM legal counsel.

“The university and the city have to take the managerial responsibility to implement the terms of their agreement with DOJ,” Tremblay said on Thursday. “It’s my role to assess and report independently on their efforts to implement that agreement.”

After its yearlong investigation, the DOJ found that UM’s Office of Public Safety lacked the policies and procedures needed to guide its response to reports of sexual assault. It also found that campus police officers weren’t sufficiently trained as first responders to sexual crimes.

Prior to a 2012 seminar on the subject, only two campus police officers had received specific training on sexual violence, and the most recent training had taken place five years earlier, the DOJ reported.

“We’re already starting to look at the policies and gathering the resources, and we’ll be working to put together a community advisory group,” said Michael Reid, vice president of administration and finance at UM. “In the next two to three months, we expect to have everything in place.”

Reid, who oversees the campus police, and Lucy France, the university’s legal counsel, said the school will review national best practices guiding the response to and investigation of sexual assaults.

Among them, they named the International Association of Chiefs of Police, along with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA.

“We’re working to redevelop our policies to make sure we have the best of everyone else’s policies,” Reid said. “We’ll incorporate what works best in the city of Missoula, for the university, and using the expertise we’ve been able to glean from all other agencies.”

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After its investigation, the DOJ concluded that gender-based assumptions and stereotypes influenced the initial response by campus police officers to reports of sexual assault on campus.

The report cited several incidents, including one in which two officers used the term “regretted sex” while speaking loud enough for others to hear during a call to a college dorm.

The report said such premature assessments and statements reflect sex-based stereotypes that contradict equal protection under the 14th Amendment. It also contradicts national research, which places the false reporting rate for sexual assault at between 2 percent and 8 percent.

“You see a lot of this,” Tremblay said. “Sexual violence is difficult to talk about. There are a lot misperceptions and personal biases that can interfere in the pursuit of justice.”

Tremblay said the agreement reached between the DOJ, the university and the city of Missoula requires him to provide a quarterly report to the federal agency.

He believes the quarterly reports will be a matter of public record, though that has not been finalized. The contract with Tremblay was not yet official Thursday.

“One of the most important things for the university and the city is be concerned with public trust,” Tremblay said. “Any reporting on where they’re at and what they’re doing is part of that public trust.”

Tremblay said the university and city have said they’re committed to their agreement with the DOJ. He’ll report independently on their progress.

“It’s going to improve every aspect of university policing,” said Reid. “I see it becoming a methodology that allows us to assess and improve every aspect of what’s going on at the university.”

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Last week, the DOJ also released the findings of its investigation into how UM handles cases of sexual assault. The agency said its agreement with UM will make the school a national model for Title IX rights while protecting women as they pursue their college education.

On Thursday, the News and Observer in Chapel Hill, N.C., reported that a task force working on the University of North Carolina’s own sexual assault and harassment policies will “look to a recent agreement between the U.S. government and the University of Montana over that campus’ response to sexual assaults.”

The paper reported that UNC-CH itself is under federal investigation for its reporting and handling of sexual assault cases. The school has undertaken a review of its policy through a 22-member task force.

While UM and the city cooperated with the DOJ investigation and have embraced the potential for improvement in areas that were found deficient, the agreement has been criticized by some.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia, called the agreement “a shocking affront” to free speech, and one that sets a “breathtakingly broad” definition of sexual harassment.

The group took particular aim at the DOJ’s request that UM widen its definition of sexual harassment to “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” along with verbal contact found to be offensive by the receiver.

“The Department of Education has enlisted the help of the DOJ to mandate campus speech codes so broad that virtually every student will regularly violate them,” Greg Lukianoff, the group’s president, said after the DOJ concluded its investigation of UM.

Lukianoff believes new regulations mandated by DOJ will apply to sexually themed jokes overheard by sensitive ears, misguided requests for dates, and unwelcome flirtation.

“There’s likely no student on campus anywhere who isn’t guilty of at least one of these offenses,” he said. “Any attempt to enforce this rule evenhandedly and comprehensively will be impossible.”

View this article at Independent Record.