Between the storms: Missoula scandal creates statewide reaction

It is hard to think of Montana and sexual assault without thinking of the scandal that has rocked the University of Montana for the past year.

The continuing story in Missoula regarding the alleged sexual assaults committed by football team members entered another chapter this week, as the rape trial against former UM quarterback Jordan Johnson began Friday.

Allegations against Johnson first surfaced in March 2012 when a restraining order was filed against him by a fellow UM student for allegedly raping her after the two watched a movie in February of that year.

In December 2011, an outside investigator was hired by the university after two students reported being drugged and raped. The investigator found that nine alleged rapes and sexual assaults had happened between September 2010 and December 2011, including two that had not been previously reported to the university.

In January of this year, former UM running back Beau Donaldson received a 30-year prison sentence for raping a childhood acquaintance as she slept on the couch. The Missoulian reported that Donaldson will be eligible for parole after two and a half years of time served.

Amid the growing scandal and allegations against members of the team, football Head Coach Robin Pflugrad and Athletic Director Jim O’Day were fired by UM President Royce Engstrom in March.

Missoula and UM are the subjects of ongoing investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, which is investigating how the university has handled claims of sexual assault, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating sexual harassment complaints against members of the football team, and the N.C.A.A. These investigations were announced in May of last year.

Last week, former U.S. Congressman and Montana Board of Regents member Pat Williams was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has to stop.”

In the wake of the scandal at UM, the Montana University System (MUS) as a whole was forced to evaluate its policies toward sexual assault. “The issues at the University of Montana have helped put sexual assault much higher on the system radar, which gives us an opportunity to get better as a system,” MSU Dean of Students Matt Caires said.

In March of last year, nearly 100 student and administrative representatives from colleges and universities across the state came together at Montana Tech in Butte for discussion about sexual assault and prevention. The representatives discussed the different issues facing their respective schools and the prevention techniques and resources used to combat sexual assault. Another statewide summit is planned for this autumn.

Beginning last fall, UM students are now mandated to participate in the university’s new PETSA (Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness) program that includes a series of videos about sexual violence and personal prevention techniques.

At MSU, the reporting process has been streamlined, according to Caires, allowing it to be more accessible to students. “Because of the work we’ve done…we’re much better at how we respond to these situations,” he said. “The policies are better,…the reporting structure is better.”

But while the policies have drastically improved during his time at MSU, Caires pointed out that all upgrades are on a “continuous scale,” and the university will work hard to continue moving forward.

According to Jake Losinski, the Education/Prevention coordinator for the VOICE Center, “There has definitely been a correlation between the UM debacle and how much our services are being used.” He added, “In the past year we estimate that our number of clients has tripled.”

While the highly-publicized Johnson trial continues in Missoula, the larger issue of sexual assault in Montana remains in headlines and under scrutiny. “Rape and sexual assault have definitely been receiving more attention by the general public,” Losinski said.

In further columns we will examine what sexual assault at MSU looks like specifically, and how MSU will continue to move forward.

The Exponent is committed to achieving the most thorough knowledge possible on this issue. If you have information about MSU’s history in response to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experience with sexual assault and/or university policy please contact us at news@exponent.montana.edu.