While students wait for the University of New Mexico to investigate their claims of sexual assault, sometimes their grades suffer, and the long process can be consuming. The holdup might be because civil rights investigators at UNM only recently had sexual assault cases added to their workload.
Sarah was living in student housing at UNM when, she said, she was sexually assaulted by a neighbor, who was also her friend. She said afterward, he was hard to avoid. "I saw him almost every day."
Sarah, whose name has been changed for this story, said she didn’t report it for months. "It’s hard reporting that on one of your good friends."
Eventually, though, she did report her assault to UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity. And that started the wheels turning on an administrative investigation. The process is different than reporting an assault to police, launching a criminal investigation and going to court, all of which could take years.
A university probe is supposed to be quicker and attempts to figure out whether the student who’s been accused should be kicked out of school or denied a diploma.
"It’s extremely frustrating, especially at the beginning, because it was hard to talk about it, and they didn’t really inform me what was going on," she said, "but I would hear things through my friends who would get interviewed."
The federal Office of Civil Rights says these university sexual assault investigations are supposed to take 60 days.
But at UNM, they usually take longer, on average about 90 days, according to a spokesperson. I filed a records request to confirm that, and what came back was so heavily redacted, it’s hard to tell whether that’s true. We’re pursuing more details. Regardless, in Sarah’s case, the wait was harrowing.
"I don’t hear anything from them, and it’s hard not to think about it. I think about it a lot," she said. "It’s something that has really shaped my life. I’m really trying to do something about it. It’s hard when it seems like you’re not getting anywhere."
It was months before Sarah got a preliminary letter from OEO, saying there was probable cause in her case. In the meantime, she tanked a couple of classes. But the process didn’t stop there, because someone else reported an assault by the same person Sarah accused. She said at 6 months, the investigation was finally closed, and at 7, the person she said assaulted her was penalized.
Claire Harwell is the legal director for the Community Justice Project, and she said a prolonged process enhances the trauma for the survivor. "When you know that there’s more than one survivor, more than one victim in a case, you’d hope that the investigation would be accelerated, so that the reporting students would be protected. Instead, what we see in this case is that the investigation took longer."
Harwell said the students she’s working with often don’t know what their rights are or what help is available. For example, academic accommodations could mean delaying a final or being allowed to take it off campus. And while a probe is ongoing and sanctions haven't been determined, she said, an offender remains unhindered. "What you’d want to see is that the resources would be reallocated so that someone who’s identified as a serial predator gets focused on by the investigative resources of the campus, and that serial offending gets addressed more rapidly."
Heather Cowan is a manager at OEO. The office fields all civil rights complaints at UNM for faculty, staff and students. And sexual violence and assault cases are new for the department; OEO’s only been handling those for about a year.
"I think that our staff does really really great with what we have," Cowan said.
I asked whether she thinks the office is adequately staffed.
"If we had more people, we would be able to do a lot more stuff," she said. "We would be able to process cases more quickly, we’d be able to do a lot more proactive programs, more training."
Three investigators handle all of the civil rights cases. And there’s high turnover in this position. Cowan said one of the three investigators is green, and training takes 3 months to 6 months. The other two have been there about a year.
"We do recognize that sometimes our cases take longer, but it’s important to us that all of our cases are treated equally and fairly, and that we do a thorough, good job," she said.
In Cowan's view, things are looking up: A permanent OEO director should be in place by the start of the fall semester. UNM rolled out an updated sexual assault policy. A Lobo Respect center will also be unveiled. It’s meant to better inform students about their rights and how to report a sexual assault.
But, she added, a clearer reporting process could bring in more sexual assaults cases to investigate. That could mean even longer wait times for people who’ve reported a sexual assault at UNM.
Review UNM's updated sexual assault policy here.