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University of Montana campus police meet requirements to improve response to sexual assault

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MISSOULA, Montana — The University of Montana campus police department has met federal requirements to improve its response to sexual assault reports, the Department of Justice announced Friday.

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said an independent reviewer determined that campus police met the goals of a May 2013 agreement by improving their policies, practices and training, leading to more reliable sexual assault investigations. They also improved their communication with university officials and Missoula police, he said.

The reforms implemented over the past three years have dramatically improved the ability for UM and Missoula to protect victims of sexual assault, Cotter said, in thanking campus police and UM officials for their efforts.

Over the past two years, campus police officers participated in more than 1,000 hours of training in sexual assault response, investigation, supervision and documentation, UM President Royce Engstrom said, noting that was an average of about 79 hours per officer.

One training session reminded officers to focus on believing, reassuring and empowering the person reporting the assault instead of making them feel like they were being investigated.

In 2012, the Civil Rights offices with the federal departments of Justice and Education began investigations that found gender bias was undermining law enforcement's response to sexual assault reports on campus. Investigators found that UM students who reported being sexually assaulted were belittled, disbelieved or blamed and in one case, a UM student was notified that he was the subject of two sexual assault complaints and fled the country before police were notified.

Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said as a result of the reforms "the women of Missoula are safer, more trusting of the criminal justice system and subject to more fair and respectful treatment by campus police," and that UM's new policies "are poised to become a model for institutions of higher education and campus police departments grappling with these issues across the country."

The problem came to light in late 2011, after former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz was hired to investigate allegations that two female students had been gang raped, possibly after being drugged. Barz uncovered nine alleged sexual assaults against women at UM between September 2010 and December 2011. The school wasn't aware of all nine cases.

Barz also noted campus police officers didn't notify victims of available services and that officers routinely asked women if they wanted to pursue charges, warning them that they would have to face the suspect in court.

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