ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — After a 16-month investigation of the University of New Mexico’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault, the Department of Justice concluded that the university has improved, but it still has a long way to go.
A 37-page letter to university president Robert Frank cites ends with five specific steps UNM must take to comply with federal civil rights laws, including better training, better investigations, a revised grievance procedure, and eliminating a “hostile environment.”
The Department of Justice letter cites the UNM’s incorrect view, in October 2015, that Title IX protections apply only to students, not employees.
“(T)he fact that individuals tasked with internally reviewing sexual harassment investigations are not aware that Title IX covers employees is evidence of UNM’s lack of understanding and failure to train responsible parties as to the scope of the statute,” the letter says in a footnote.
Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 is the primary federal law used to enforce sexual equality on campuses that receive federal funding.
The Justice Department began investigation UNM in December 2014 for its policies on Title IX and Title IV, which involves federal financial aid.
The April 22 letter praises the university’s cooperation in the investigation and the corrective steps it has taken, but criticizes its confusing reporting policies, uneven investigation techniques and outdated policies.
Among the conclusions in the letter:
The UNM has conflicting and poorly documented processes for reporting sexual harassment or assault.
Information on how to report sexual harassment and assault is not readily available to students.
Most students “had never heard of the Office of Equal Opportunity (‘OEO’), the office tasked with processing sexual harassment complaints.”
Students did not understand when reports would be or would not be confidential.
Students did not understand the difference between an administrative and a criminal report.
Many students “expressed reluctance to report sexual assault to UNM because they feared retaliation or because they lacked confidence in the university’s response.”
Part of the blame lies in the university’s “labyrinth of 17 outdated policies …]related to sexual assault and sexual harassment, many in conflict with each other and with federal regulations.”
Investigators found that most of these policies have not been updated in 15 years; that the university provided virtually no training on the subjects; that faculty and staff didn’t understand when or how to report sexual harassment; and that most UNM police officers had not received adequate training either.
Additional problems include the university’s slow response time and inconsistent reporting.
The compounded effect of these problems were such that “some complainants reported that OEO’s process was more upsetting and traumatizing than the initial sexual harassment that was the subject of their complaint. As a result, almost all complainants with whom the United States spoke said that they wished they had never gone through the process.”
One student who reported being sexually assaulted by another student was humiliated by a staff member who called the assailant her “ex-lover,” the Justice Department found. “The complainant reported feeling humiliated and demeaned by this language.”
The bulk of the letter does not address individual incidents, but general attitudes and areas of need.
There is lack of communication between university departments, between the university and students, and between the university and the larger community, when it comes to sexual assaults. Slow responses, failure to notify the parties involved on the progress of the investigation, and inconsistent application of investigative procedures and standards of credibility have created a perception among the student body and the community at large that the university is more interested in hushing up sexual harassment and assaults than in preventing them, especially when the accused are student athletes or university employees, the Department of Justice found.
When federal investigators spoke with university officials, several made statements “placing blame with students who are assaulted, reflecting a significant lack of understanding about the dynamics of sexual assault,” the letter states.
Though the report praises the UNM for updating its policies and launching initiatives such as the LoboRESPECT website addressing sexual harassment and other student issues, the university still is in violation of Title IX standards and must take the following steps to assure compliance:
1. Provide comprehensive training to all faculty, staff and students about the university’s policies, reporting options and duties regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault, including where to go for help and information on grievance procedures.
2. Revise policies and procedures to provide an effective and equitable grievance procedure.
3. Adequately investigate and respond to all allegations of sexual harassment, assault and/or retaliation for reporting.
4. Take prompt steps to eliminate a hostile environment and prevent it from recurring.
5. Ensure that individuals designed to coordinate Title IX efforts are adequately trained and working effectively.
Representatives for UNM could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
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