The United States Justice Department announced May 1 that it is launching an investigation of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the University of Montana and in the greater Missoula, Montana community.
The Justice Department says there have been 80 reported sexual assaults in the area over the last three years. While Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir told Reuters that number is about average for a college community the size of Missoula, it’s the matter in which the reports were handled that brought about the investigation.
“There are a lot of women in the community who have strong concerns about the manner in which sexual assaults have been handled,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, at a news conference announcing the investigation, reported Reuters.
“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,” Perez said in a statement. “Our primary focus is not the number of reported allegations of sexual assault; rather, our focus is on the response.”
The investigation will look at whether gender discrimination affected the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of incidents.
“The allegations that the University of Montana, the local police department and the county attorney’s office failed to adequately address sexual assaults are very disturbing,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the statement.
The Los Angeles Times reported that only one of the reported sexual assaults has been publicly identified for prosecution. That incident involved Beau Donaldson, running back for the university’s Grizzlies football team. Donaldson was charged with rape earlier this year, admitted to the assault and apologized. His case is still pending.
Missoula city and university officials have been working together to improve awareness programs including creating a website, Missoula911.com, to help women understand how to file reports and where to get counseling.
“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,” City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”