Big Picture: DOJ Report On Sexual Assault At UNM

UNM via Flickr / Creative Commons License

UNM via Flickr / Creative Commons License

  • Marisa Demarco
  • Thursday, May 29, 2016

The Department of Justice has scrutinized just two universities in the country about campus assault and harassment: The University of Montana and the University of New Mexico. Results of the DOJ probe in Montana were revealed in May 2013. The findings letter for UNM came out at the end of April this year.

The feds’ 37-page critique of UNM spans six academic years (2009-2015) and covers a lot of territory.

DOJ CRITIQUE

Administrative Investigations

The feds heavily criticize UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity for its investigations, especially an inability to deal with evidence: “… OEO rarely attempts, and investigators are inadequately trained, to identify witnesses or obtain physical evidence of its own accord.”

According to the report, a complainant in one case said she’d been strangled during her assault. Medical records showed redness and bruising on her neck, but the OEO investigator said there wasn’t evidence of strangulation. Overall, in that case, OEO found insufficient evidence for a probable cause finding, which is what would have allowed the university to punish the offender.

The DOJ points to an “unwritten policy” that probable cause findings require an eyewitness, tangible evidence or an admission from the offender. And witnesses reported that they told OEO about relevant texts, social media posts or recorded images, but the investigators didn’t ask to see them.

There are not enough investigators at UNM according to the report, and their caseloads are heavy. There’s been high turnover in the office, too.

One of the concerns in the report that was echoed by survivors who spoke with KUNM was the length of investigations: “far too many months” the DOJ report states “and occasionally years.” It’s a problem, the DOJ says, because evidence can be lost in the meantime. The report points to a case where “potentially critical video evidence from UNM security cameras had long since been recorded over” even though the person who filed the complaint mentioned that video might exist right from the start. And once, when the office reached out to a witness months after an assault was reported, the report states that investigators found that eyewitness had moved out of the country.

OEO doesn’t adequately keep track of allegations of assault and harassment, the report states, and the dots aren’t being connected when a person is accused of assault or harassment multiple times. The Department of Justice also says OEO and UNM police don’t do a good job of sharing info, even when the two entities are conducting parallel investigations on the same cases.

Police Investigations

The DOJ found that some people said they were treated in an “insensitive and humiliating manner” while reporting harassment to UNM’s Police Department. They got lectures from officers about not drinking in public, the report states, or they were asked why they “didn’t do more to fight off their attackers.”

Officers were sometimes skeptical when a possible victim came forward, and didn’t follow up, according to the DOJ. Or they conducted “relatively short and dismissive” interviews with the person who brought the allegations, focusing the investigation on him or her, not the person accused of assault.

According to the feds, UNMPD isn’t equipped to process a crime scene for evidence.

Penalties

The DOJ says in harassment cases, it often takes a long time for the university to discipline someone after probable cause is found, and this reinforces “the perception that UNM does not take complaints of sexual harassment seriously.” And sometimes the penalties are so delayed, they don’t matter, according to the report. In one case, an accused employee had already completed a contract and moved away.

In another case spotlighted in the report, one accused person had been suspended while a sexual assault was being investigated, but in the meantime that person applied for graduate school at UNM and got in. OEO eventually determined there was probable cause in the assault case. Still, the graduate school admissions office didn’t know about it until an advocate called and broke the news.

Impact On Survivors

People who interacted with OEO told the feds that the length of the investigations and poor communication with the office left them confused, frustrated and stressed. They said in some cases, the OEO process “was more upsetting and traumatizing than the initial sexual harassment.” And almost all of them “wished they had never gone through the process and would not refer another student who had experienced sexual assault to OEO.”

Lengthy investigations also deter people from reporting an assault and pursuing a complaint, according to the report, and in at least one case, caused someone to withdraw from the process saying “this is taking too long and the emotional toll on me is too great.”

There’s also some confusion about when people’s names will become public or will become revealed to the other side. The DOJ points to a case where the complainant wasn’t informed that a no-contact order would reveal her name, and when her name was revealed, she was harassed and threatened.

The university was being investigated by the feds under the authority of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against students in public schools. That means sex-based harassment, too. Sexual assault and harassment have caused students at UNM to leave school, derailing their academic careers, according to the report. And the report states students dropped classes, wouldn’t go to some areas of campus and lost scholarships.

A Protected Class

The DOJ reports that it heard about two situations where there was pressure from administration on OEO to hurry investigations, one because it was high-profile, and another because the person who’d been accused was “well-positioned, politically, in the state.”

There was also call for an investigation to be delayed, according to the report, because a well-known guest was coming to visit the employee who’d been accused, and the investigation would embarrass UNM.

Among the campus community, there’s the perception that UNM won’t discipline athletes, the DOJ states. A UNMPD officer said the administration wouldn’t acknowledge evidence of sexual harassment and retaliation by some student athletes.

In particular, the report points to a high-profile case of sexual assault in which UNM didn’t release a statement condemning assault. The DOJ also says there was no stance taken by the university in the case of a fraternity that was accused of sexual assault.

Culture & Training

People who teach, work and go to school at the university told the feds that UNM “approaches allegations of sexual assault with indifference or skepticism, and in some cases even levels blame upon the student experiencing the alleged assault.” They also said UNM is more concerned with its image than with creating a safe campus.

Part of that image is party culture, according to students, faculty and staff interviewed by investigators. They said party culture is being used to build the athletics program.

Faculty and staff told the Department of Justice they don’t get training on how to spot harassment, or what to do when a student reports assault. Grad students and staff reported they notified their department chairs and supervisors about sexual harassment that’d been reported to them; there was no response, and it wasn’t passed on to OEO.

Drug-facilitated sexual assaults and a possible serial offender associated with the Greek community were reported to a UNM official, but that info was also not given to OEO, according to the Department of Justice.

Policies

The report points out that there are many policies at UNM—17 at one time—that overlap and conflict, and it makes it hard for people to tell where they should report what, when it’s confidential, or what the process is like. The DOJ called the policies “daunting and inscrutable.” A lot of that was mitigated when a new, overarching Sexual Misconduct Policy was unveiled a year ago, but there are still some problems, the DOJ states. For instance, it can be hard to tell which parts of those older policies are no longer in effect.

UNM also created the Lobo Respect Advocacy Center—a centralized hub for assault and harassment info—while the feds were conducting their investigation. The Department of Justice commends this step in the report.

UNM RESPONSE

The university disagrees with some of what’s in the DOJ report, saying it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Officials say they were discouraged, too, to see that the university’s work to address these issues hadn’t been taken into account—especially work that happened immediately after the investigation’s timeframe.

The Office of Equal Opportunity is hiring new investigators. They have five—up from three. There’s also a permanent director in place, Francie Cordova.

Heather Cowan, OEO’s Title IX coordinator, oversees investigators at UNM. Despite what’s in the DOJ’s findings letter, she says they’ve never felt pressure to complete an investigation quickly or to slow one down, and she’s never been asked to come up with a certain finding.

Nasha Torrez is taking over as the dean of students, and she has some expertise on Title IX and sexual assault reporting, according to a news release. The Dean of Students Office is tasked with administering penalties when OEO finds probable cause in these cases, among other things.

UNM’s Police Department pointed a finger at District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, saying Bernalillo County’s prosecutor didn’t pursue sexual assault cases referred by UNMPD unless they were “tied up in a bow.”

BACKGROUND

It’s estimated that serial offenders account for nine out of 10 campus assaults—that’s 90 percent. So, catching and expelling someone early should reduce the number of assaults on campuses overall.

There are two kinds of sexual assault investigations at UNM. One is criminal and involves the UNM Police Department and maybe, eventually, the district attorney and the court system. All campus sexual assaults called into police are handled by UNMPD—even if they’re first called into the Albuquerque Police Department.

The second kind of investigation is administrative. It’s conducted by UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity and can determine whether a student should be expelled or otherwise punished by the university for violating school policy. The office doesn’t determine guilt. Rather, investigators can either find that there was probable cause that a university policy was violated, or not.

Students, staff or faculty can choose to pursue criminal charges or administrative sanctions—or both of these options—when pursuing a complaint.

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