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Feds Reach Agreement With Montana School On Sexual Assaults

The Department of Justice has reached an agreement with the University of Montana to resolve an investigation into the school's response to accusations of sexual harassment since 2009. The federal inquiry will continue to examine how Missoula city officials have handled such cases.

"The Justice Department started its investigation a year ago, following a string of reports of sexual assaults," reports NPR's Martin Kaste, for our Newscast Desk. "Female students said their complaints weren't taken seriously or followed up on properly."

The federal investigation began after at least 11 sexual assaults involving students were reported over the course of 18 months. The school's football team had become tied to scandals, as at least two players were accused of rape, and others were accused of sexual assault.

"The problems we found at the University of Montana were real and significant," said Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Roy L. Austin Jr., announcing the agreement Thursday.

"We heard from women who lived through sexual assault and were unfairly belittled, disbelieved, or blamed for speaking up about what was done to them," Austin said, "and we heard from those who are frustrated that the reputation of the entire University has been harmed by the actions of a small minority of students."

As The Missoulian reports, federal officials decided to act "after UM waited a week to tell city police about two students who reported being sexually assaulted on the same night by the same man, who then fled the country."

Citing a letter sent from Justice officials to the University of Montana's president, Royce Engstrom this week, the newspaper said that the federal investigation found that the school's Office of Public Safety "does not adequately respond to reports of sexual assault, and that its policies and training related to sexual assault response are insufficient and, until recently, nonexistent."

In some cases, the letter said, women who had been assaulted left the university — a situation that is far from rare, as a 2010 NPR investigative report with the Center for Public Integrity on sexual violence on campuses found.

Thursday, Justice officials said that the problems they found in Montana are shared by other schools, as well. The federal Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, enacted in March, seeks to address some of those concerns, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reported.

Speaking Thursday, Austin and U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter credited the Engstrom for instituting reforms.

As part of the agreement, the University of Montana pledged to "adequately investigate and respond to allegations of retaliation by students who have alleged sexual assault," and to "take sufficient effective action to fully eliminate a hostile environment based on sex, prevent its recurrence and address its effects."

As Martin reported last year, the federal decision to investigate how city and county law enforcement agencies in Missoula handled at least 80 alleged rapes over three years was not welcomed by officials.

"The city and university have pledged to cooperate," Martin said. "But at an awkward joint news conference, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg lashed out at the federal officials standing right next to him."

Valkenburg called the inquiry "an overreach."

The Justice Department's Thomas Perez said that the investigation was part of the Civil Rights Division's mission "to ensure adequate protection of everyone in the community."

After beginning their inquiry, federal officials widened the scope of the investigation in Missoula to include cases from January of 2008, and misdemeanor sex crimes in addition to rape. Those changes left them with 518 cases to analyze.

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