The U.S. Justice Department’s decision to open a civil rights investigation into the handling of sexual assault cases in Missoula, Mont., follows months of efforts by city officials to deal with escalating complaints about rapes at the University of Montana, two of them involving members of the school’s football program.
The Justice Department said it would look at 80 reported sexual assaults in the city over the last three years. Many of the cases appear to involve young women at the university who said they were victimized — sometimes gang-raped — in attacks that often involved drugs and alcohol.
An investigation last year by a former justice of the Montana Supreme Court found at least nine incidents of reported sexual assaults in 2010 and 2011 at the university. Most were apparently committed by students; few were prosecuted. Two more cases have been reported since then.
In one case, a Saudi exchange student was made aware of a rape complaint and was able to flee the country before a police report could be filed. In another case, the university's starting quarterback was able to resume football practice this spring despite the fact that a student said he had sexually assaulted her and that she had obtained a "no-contact” order against him.
The university “has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus and needs to take steps to address it to ensure the safety of all students as well as faculty, staff and guests,” former state Justice Diane Barz said in her January 2012 report. That report said prosecutions were difficult because of a reluctance by students and witnesses to come forward and file reports.
“A rape-tolerant campus with ineffective programming, inadequate support services for victim survivors, and inequitable grievance procedures threatens every student,” the report said.
The extraordinary step of a Justice Department investigation comes amid suggestions that the campus police force, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County attorney’s office may have violated federal gender discrimination laws by repeatedly failing to adequately investigate and prosecute alleged sexual assaults, federal officials said.
“Late last year, the department became aware of serious concerns that alleged sexual assaults of women, including but not limited to students at the University of Montana, were not being investigated in a prompt and adequate fashion,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement. “Our primary focus is not the number of reported allegations of sexual assault; rather, our focus is on the response.”
County prosecutors said they couldn't say how many cases had been prosecuted, but only one of the assaults reported at the university has been publicly identified for prosecution: Beau Donaldson, running back for the Grizzlies football team, was charged earlier this year with rape after a student complained she had awakened in the middle of the night to find him having sexual intercourse with her.
Donaldson admitted to the assault and apologized, blaming it on alcohol and prescription drugs, according to court documents. The case is still pending.
Missoula County Prosecutor Fred Van Valkenburg said Missoula had no more rape complaints than any other city of its size and that all cases are considered for prosecution based on whether there is a chance of winning a conviction.
“In sexual assault or sexual intercourse without consent cases, they’re among the most difficult cases there are to prosecute, because more often than not you essentially have a situation where one person says one thing and another person says something else.… Consent is a difficult matter to prove,” he said in an interview.
He said that relatively few sexual assault cases at the university had been presented to the police for investigation and prosecution. “What seems to be the case is that the university itself, and to some degree the alleged victims in cases, have decided that they want to just pursue internal discipline within the university over these matters,” he said.
At least one student accused and mentioned in former Justice Barz's report has been expelled under university disciplinary procedures, he said.
University and city officials have improved programs over the last several months to make students aware of the problem of sexual violence and make it easier for victims to report assaults. The city has created a website, missoula911.com, to help young women understand how to file reports with police and obtain counseling.
“Our police chief worked with our 911 department to rewrite the script for responses to this type of call so we do not send a police officer with sirens and lights — that’s not our first response. Our first response is, ‘What do you need?’” city spokeswoman Ginny Merriam told the Los Angeles Times.
“We as policy makers really need to be careful, and use appropriate language … that supports victims’ rights, and doesn’t make this a back-and-forth issue,” said City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken. She'd earlier taken the city’s police chief to task for reportedly saying that a large number of rape reports are false.
Wolken said city officials were seeking a better working relationship with the university to handle sexual assault cases.
“We’re doing everything we can in our community to address this, but I think as a college town, it’s been difficult to work with the university. They have different policies that they’re dealing with, and I would like to see more clarity and transparency in the way the university is handling sexual assault cases, and I’d like there to be more focus on holding offenders accountable,” she said.
School officials did not return phone calls for comment, but university President Royce Engstrom has repeatedly expressed the school's commitment to making sure sex crimes are reported and perpetrators are dealt with. “As always, our concern is for the safety of our students, and we do as much as we can to remove the perpetrators from our learning environment,” he told the Missoulian earlier this year.
The university’s head football coach, Robin Pflugrad, was fired along with athletic director Jim O'Day in March, though sexual assault complaints involving football players were not listed as a reason for their dismissal.
Van Valkenburg has expressed bitterness at the Justice Department’s decision to open the investigation without telling local officials exactly what they are investigating and why.
“We find it extremely ironic that the United States Department of Justice, an agency dedicated to the preservation and protection of rights of the population in this country, refuses to tell us what we have supposedly done wrong,” he said at a news conference Tuesday in Missoula.
“They are essentially sending a message to every local prosecutor in America that they will use their resources to second-guess every decision a local prosecutor makes.… I think this is an overreach by the federal government.”