UNM among top 10 fastest-growing state flagships

The University of New Mexico’s main campus in Albuquerque. Russell Contreras/The Associated Press

The University of New Mexico’s administration plans to investigate reports of sexual assault faster now, following a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice that said students lacked confidence in school investigators.

UNM’s new policy, which the school said became effective this week, makes changes to correct the deficiencies in the Office of Equal Opportunity, said Heather Cowan, the university’s Title IX coordinator. The office handles noncriminal investigations of sexual assault, but students can also ask campus police to conduct a criminal investigation.

Under the revamped system, once a complaint is filed with the Office of Equal Opportunity it will be converted to a report by investigators.

The office hopes to complete investigations in 60 days, Cowan said. In 2015, the office took on average 104 days on a complaint.

An accuser will have five days to review the complaint, compared to two weeks under the old system. The same changes in the timeline will apply to appeals.

Another change might be even more significant. Under the old system, accusers weren’t allowed to read what the accused said in response to a complaint. The new model allows them to do so.

UNM also has hired a fifth investigator for the office, who is now in training, Cowan said.

“We’re trying to tighten up all time frames wherever we can while preserving everyone’s due process rights,” she said.

The Justice Department began its investigation in December 2014 and reviewed 173 sexual misconduct complaints filed across six years. It said UNM officials dismissed complaints from women before properly considering evidence.

The Justice Department also found significant gaps in UNM’s training and procedures for investigating reports of sexual assault, creating a grievance process that critics called “confusing, distressing and rife with delays.”

Some students told the Justice Department they were reluctant to report sexual assaults to the university because they lacked confidence in the investigative process. In other instances, students didn’t know how to report sexual misconduct or where to seek help.

A handful of universities have come under fire recently for their handling of sexual assault investigations. Baylor University in Texas received most of the attention and now faces a second Title IX lawsuit that claims the school and its football program took no official action after three women reported being sexually assaulted by football players. Two Baylor players were convicted in criminal court of sexual assault and sentenced to prison.

But only two universities — UNM and the University of Montana — have been targets of Justice Department investigations for their handling of sexual-assault complaints.

Around the country, the number of sexual-assault reports on campuses has risen, according to National Sexual Violence Resource Center figures. In 2011, nearly every two of 10,000 students reported on-campus sex offenses. In 2013, some 3.3 of 10,000 students reported offenses.

The trend also is true in New Mexico. According to a UNM report last year, the university received 138 complaints in 2015, or three times as many as the prior year.

But more reports doesn’t necessarily mean more assaults, Cowan said. Rather, it might mean more awareness, she said.

She pointed to two reasons reports could be rising. The country is going through a cultural shift as victims are blamed less, she said. And now there’s more awareness among students and faculty about sexual assault and more resources for dealing with the crime, she said.

The Justice Department’s report did not lead to UNM’s new policy, but it accelerated it, Cowan said. For years, UNM had operated under a rigid, outdated model, one that she realized needed to be changed, she said, after she returned to UNM three years ago from the University of Michigan.

Neither representatives from the Justice Department nor the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs could be reached for comment Friday on UNM’s announced reforms.

Contact Dan Schwartz at 505-428-7626 or dschwartz@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @NMDanSchwartz.