Reports of sexual assault and misconduct at the University of New Mexico have been on the rise since the school entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, according to recent crime statistics.
University officials say that’s because UNM has shown students that the school has a fair and consistent process. But advocates say not so fast.
Reports of rape from UNM staff, students and faculty both on campus and off campus went up up by 37 percent from 2016 to 2018. That’s according to UNM’s recent crime statistics. Domestic violence reports went up by 31 percent, and reports of stalking are almost up by that much, too.
Angela Catena is the Title IX Coordinator at UNM’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which receives complaints about sexual assault and harassment.
"While we are seeing numbers go up, with the MeToo Movement and all of these other kind of national events that have been happening to gain attention, more people are coming forward and being comfortable talking about that," Catena said.
Catena's said she' seen a huge culture change on campus. It’s not as taboo to talk about sexual assault or harassment as it was five years ago, she said, and there’s been an increase in reporting of sexual misconduct here—and across the nation.
In 2016, the DOJ criticized how UNM handles reports of sexual assault and harrassment. The agency’s report found survivors’ experiences were often discounted, or they were intimidated into not filing complaints. University officials have been working to make the reporting process effective and timely so that survivors are not revictimized when they come forward.
Catena said that’s why reporting has gone up, and it’s something UNM has taken seriously. "We’ve really been able to kind of tighten up what our process looks like and conclude investigations in a more timely manner," she said.
There are more people working at OEO than ever before, Catena said. "We are really well equipped at this point to handle the increase" she said. "We are all just riding this very new wave of looking at sexual misconduct in colleges and universities."
Reporting sexual assault and harassment can be daunting for many survivors. But Nasha Torrez, UNM’s dean of students, said the LoboRespect Advocacy Center has done trainings for over 39,000 students in recent years to teach about the importance of consent, healthy relationships and campus resources.
"The more people become aware of what their rights are and what their options are, if they are a survivor of rape, that it seems reasonable to me that we see an increase in reporting" Torrez said.
If a survivor makes a report to the police or OEO, it will go through the appropriate channels, Torrez said, but sometimes that’s not always the best way to heal for survivors.
"So, if you have your heart set on a certain outcome—its hard, too— there’s no guarantees" said Torrez. "But the university and the criminal justice system, I think, both take it very seriously and are here to support you through that process."
Claire Hawell is the Community Justice Project Coordinator at The New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
"The fundamental thing about sexual violence is it's a really excruciatingly painful experience of being out of control" Harwell said. "So, if you set your heart on that particular outcome for which you have no control, it is a set up for you."
Harwell, who’s a lawyer and represents some survivors, said there are parts of the reporting process where survivors have no control, so they need to think about what their goals are.
The university has taken the DOJ recommendations seriously, Harwell said, but she’d like to see the agreement extended to address OEO’s ability to handle large numbers of reports and UNM’s party culture.
"I think that once a school has a culture, it is a longitudinal project to change that culture" she said. "So I am confident that there is more work to be done around what I am going to call high-risk environments."
But there’s a lot that’s up in the air about what UNM will have to do to comply with federal law, because it’s changing. The Trump administration implemented interim Title IX rules that Harwell said provide fewer protections for survivors and more for people who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct. She said she doesn’t know what the final rule will look like.