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University of Montana agrees to reform handling of rape cases

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - The University of Montana has agreed to reform how it responds to rape accusations following a year-long investigation by two U.S. government agencies into complaints such cases were mishandled, federal authorities and the school said on Thursday.

The U.S. departments of justice and education had probed allegations the university failed to aggressively pursue sexual assault and harassment reports, several of which involved football players.

The inquiries stemmed from reports that women on campus had been subjected to unfair treatment that infringed on their civil rights and violated constitutional bans on gender-based discrimination.

"What is noteworthy about this announcement today is not the problems our investigation found at the university, but a shared commitment to the equality of women students and their safety," Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement.

Jocelyn Samuels, the division's principal deputy assistant attorney general, told a news conference that the set of agreements would provide a blueprint for reform for other campuses across the country as they address the "all too common problem of sexual assault and harassment of students."

Rape allegations on and off campus have shaken Missoula, a city of 86,000 in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

Last May, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would examine responses by local officials to 80 reported rapes over a three-year period. Weeks later, the Education Department opened an investigation into whether the school responded appropriately to at least 11 reported sexual assaults since 2010.

The agreements reached with the school outline a number of steps the university must take, including revising its policies and investigative practices into allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

'DOING THE RIGHT THING'

A former school football player, running back Beau Donaldson, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year after pleading guilty to raping a woman at his residence in 2010.

Then in March, a jury cleared former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson of raping another student while they watched a movie in her bedroom last February.

"This is about much more than compliance; this is about doing the right thing for our students and for our community," university president Royce Engstrom said in a statement.

Under the agreements, the university must "take effective action to fully eliminate a hostile environment based on sex," and improve training and work with an independent monitor to implement the reforms.

The university has pledged to ensure the safety of women on the 15,600-student campus. A training program on preventing sexual violence is now required for incoming students.

Brittany Salley-Rains, co-director of the Women's Resource Center at the university, said she has doubts that any new procedural measures will change what she described as "the culture of rape and sexual violence that exists on campus."

She added: "It's a cultural problem and it's not exclusive to our campus. There needs to be more prevention going forward and the university administration needs to do more to bring attention to the detrimental culture that threatens women."

Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for civil rights with the Education Department, said probes by federal authorities revealed incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the University of Montana that interfered with women's ability to equally engage in and benefit from school programs.

The rapes at the university created a climate of fear for many women, making them feel unsafe in certain areas of the campus, said Galanter, adding: "This hostile environment has not been fully remediated."

A separate DOJ probe into whether Missoula police and the county attorney mishandled rape cases was continuing. Missoula officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Richard Chang and Andrew Hay)

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