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Leaders of the Montana University System issued new policies Friday for handling claims of sexual assault, the latest development in a controversy that has led to a federal investigation into whether a college botched its response to rape reports made by female students.
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this month opened a gender-discrimination investigation that looks into the way the University of Montana, its football team and the city of Missoula responded to sexual assault and harassment reports. The federal Education Department's civil rights division opened a similar investigation shortly thereafter.
The university has come under fire as alleged rape victims and authorities have accused officials of mishandling rape investigations over the past two years, including cases involving football players. The football coach and athletic director were fired in March, mostly without explanation, but a cloud still hangs over the program.
The Montana Board of Regents on Friday unanimously approved a new policy aimed at ensuring sex assault complaints are properly handled. The guidelines also seek to ensure compliance with the Montana Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The board directed each state college to appoint a coordinator to oversee gender equality issues. All employees will be required to undergo training for proper reporting of sexual assaults, and university staff most likely to field such complaints will receive advanced instruction. There are policies aimed at protecting the confidentiality of alleged victims. And the guidelines call for prompt investigation and written conclusion for each case with notification to parties involved.
Key board members made it clear their analysis isn't over.
Board chair Angela McLean said she isn't ready to give University of Montana administrators a voice of support. She said emails from school administrators that will be released as part of an ongoing news media Freedom of Information Act request will help determine whether additional changes are needed.
"We will reserve judgment until we know more," McLean said in an interview with the press.
There were sweeping allegations of mishandled complaints.
Emails obtained recently by the Missoulian newspaper in western Montana show that University of Montana Vice President Jim Foley sought to punish a student who spoke publicly about how the school was handling her report of being raped. Emails also show the university urged use of the term "date rape" rather than "gang rape" in a case involving allegations against four Montana football players.
Foley has not spoken publically about the case. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom has said he is reviewing those emails and others.
Pat Williams, a well-respected regent and former congressman, said more changes could be warranted.
"I do have a great deal of confidence in President Engstrom," Williams said in an AP interview. "But I think the president has to continue to make some adjustments in staff and staff duties."
Engstrom said he hopes the continued conversation will make the university safer and added that instructions mandating all staff report sexual assault complaints to the new coordinator were significant. "Previously there was ambiguity in that," he said.
The Montana Chapter of the American Association of University Women has sent a letter to the regents asking the board to take a number of actions, including development of the protocols for handling sexual violence cases.
McLean, the board chair who also is a school teacher from Anaconda, said the board has instructed the commissioner of higher education to get more involved "with all the resources available in the office."
"We need to raise the level of transparency to leave no question in the public's mind that we as a system are being 100 percent forthcoming with all we know," McLean said.
"I think the regents have heard loudly and clearly that the citizens across this state, and the students, have lost trust and to a degree faith in the system."