Feds examine U of New Mexico sex-assault policy

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2014 6:00 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the University of New Mexico's handling of reported sexual assaults and sexual harassment of students, federal officials announced Friday.

The investigation, which will look into the university's policies for preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment, is the latest effort by the Justice Department to change the way colleges around the country respond to allegations of sexual assault.

Under the review, federal officials also will evaluate how the University of New Mexico investigates and responds to student complaints of sexual violence, sexual harassment and retaliation.

"The investigation is being conducted under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which both prohibit sex discrimination in education programs," the department said in a statement.

University officials said they were aware of the investigation and will cooperate with federal officials.

"We have assured the DOJ of our deep concern about the issue of sexual assault and the seriousness of its nature," President Robert Frank said. "We look forward to sharing the many steps that UNM has already taken to address it, as well as detailing the programs we are continuing to implement for training and education aimed at prevention."

Still, Dean of Students Tomas Aguirre said the Justice Department announcement "was frustrating" because he felt the school had made a number of changes within the last year and a half. "Once we receive the data, we'll provide any information they need," Aguirre said.

The university said it already has taken a number of steps, including adopting guidelines from the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights to develop a new educational outreach on sexual violence that was presented to more than 10,000 students this year.

According to university records, the school of around 28,000 students had 11 reported cases of sexual assault in 2013. The school has reported 8 so far this year.

It is not known what particular cases — if any — prompted the federal review.

A key tool the government has against campus sexual assault is Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. The 1972 law is better known for guaranteeing girls equal access to sports, but it also regulates institutions' handling of sexual violence and is increasingly being used by victims who say their school failed to protect them.

Title IX requires that schools proactively prevent sexual crimes, promptly investigate complaints and discipline the accused if it's more likely than not that violence occurred. The school can't retaliate against students who file complaints and must ensure that a victim can continue their education free of ongoing harassment.

Earlier this year, Montana state colleges adopted new federal guidelines meant to protect students from sexual assault following a 2013 settlement between the Justice Department and the University of Montana.

The University of Connecticut also unveiled new initiatives this year after a federal investigation. In July, the school settled a federal lawsuit filed by five women who claimed the school responded to their sexual assault complaints with indifference.

The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights began an investigation into the University of Connecticut last December based on complaints filed by four of the plaintiffs and three other women.

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