The Obama Administration showed today that it's willing to take unprecedented steps to try to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it has opened a series of investigations into how the University of Montana in Missoula and local law enforcement agencies handled reports of sexual assaults.
The Justice Department investigation will look not just at whether the university has adequately addressed the problem of sexual assault, but how local police and the county attorney responded as well. There have been at least 11 reported sexual assaults involving university students in an 18-month period, and in two recent allegations, women said a man forced them to drink alcohol that may have been laced with a date rape drug.
"Basically, this is an investigation of the entire town," Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, told NPR. She lauded the Justice Department announcement and added, "hopefully this will sound a warning to a lot of other schools."
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, in Missoula to announce the investigation, said sexual assault and sexual harassment "undermine women's basic rights and, when perpetrated against students, can negatively impact their ability to learn and continue their education." In 2010, a series of investigative reports by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that even when men are found responsible for sexual assault, there are often only weak consequences and usually it's the woman, who brought the complaint, who ends up dropping out of school.
University of Montana officials have acted in recent months to tighten discipline policies and report alleged assaults in a more timely way to local police. After the Justice Department announcement, Jim Foley, University Executive Vice President of the University, told NPR: "We intend to cooperate fully. We look forward to the discussions with the Department of Justice and continue to do everything we can to stop sexual assault."
It's the second time in a little over a year that the Obama Administration has taken ground-breaking action to address the issue of college sexual assaults. In April, 2011, the Administration announced new guidelines for schools and universities intended to push them to do more to prevent sexual assault and then to do a better job investigating when an assault is alleged.
In 2010,the NPR and CPI investigative reports looked at the culture of secrecy around the way schools investigate allegations of sexual assault and the weak response by federal officials with regulatory oversight of campus safety.