The University of Missouri system announced Wednesday it is hiring an outside consultant to review the school’s policies and materials concerning sexual assault and mental health services.
The move is the latest action in response to the highly publicized case of Sasha Menu Courey, a student at the Columbia campus who committed suicide in 2011. After her death, information emerged that she had said she was sexually assaulted more than a year before, possibly by one or more members of the Mizzou football team.
University President Tim Wolfe, who last week issued an executive order strengthening the system’s Title IX reporting procedures, said that the hiring of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management would provide important third-party assessment of the procedures and policies on the university’s four campuses.
Wolfe said in a statement that the center’s “credible, independent analysis of our current resources will help us to improve in the way we serve people on our four campuses in terms of sexual assault prevention, reporting and education, and mental-health service delivery.”
The university said the center currently represents 35 college and universities as outside counsel and provides consulting services to more than 3,000 clients. Its president and CEO, Brett A. Sokolow, said he hoped to help the university system and its campuses “become exemplars not just of compliance, but of excellence, in the face of this challenge.”
He added: “Every college and university in the country is facing challenges with prevention and response to campus sexual violence.”
A university spokesman said the center’s work would begin immediately and it is scheduled to submit a written report on May 5. It will be paid $40,000, with the funds coming from the system’s budget as part of a commitment Wolfe has made to improve safety on campus.
Police in Columbia are continuing an investigation into Courey’s case.
Law firm's report
Besides the hiring of the consultant and the executive order, Wolfe also directed the university’s campuses to review resources available in sexual assault cases. And the Board of Curators hired the St. Louis law firm of Dowd Bennett to look into the university’s handling of the Courey case.
Its report, presented to the university’s Board of Curators last week, found that the school “did not have policies in place for its employees addressing how university employees should handle information of a possible sexual assault upon a university student and what procedures should be followed by the university to investigate and ensure compliance with Title IX once the university receives notice of such allegations.”
The report, based on interviews conducted by the firm, said that the language of Title IX and its corresponding regulations do not deal directly with sexual assault. In its investigation of the handling of the case, the law firm said, “because of the uniqueness of these particular facts, and because of the lack of specificity, clarity and precision within the actual statute and regulations as would be applied to these facts, it would be fairly easy to craft reasonable arguments that the university’s actions did not 'violate the law.' However, we do not believe such legal debate is worthwhile for the purposes of advising the board.”
The report concluded:
‘Therefore, while we do not conclude that the university 'violated the law,' we do conclude with certainty that the university, as set out above, acted inconsistently with the Department of Education’s guidance about the requirements of Title IX and did not act in accordance with what would be expected of a university with a robust Title IX compliance program.”
Reaction to the report has come from a variety of sources.
On sashbear.org, a website dedicated to Courey, a statement posted this week by her “family and friends” were “pleased with the results of the independent investigation.”
The site noted that “Wolfe contacted Sasha’s parents personally, to offer his deepest sympathy and confirmed that they will be taking action to strengthen the university's policies to ensure students are safe on campus. We are hoping the transformation in their support system will make a difference and become a model for other universities.”
The posting also said that the findings of the investigation could be put to positive use.
“Our daughter Sasha went through a perfect storm of unfortunate events that led to her suicide. Although we cannot change the past, we hope that the lessons learned from the investigation will lead to positive changes for future athletes and students. We hope to see a transformation of the processes that colleges and universities have in place to deal with students struggling with mental health issues and sexual assaults, whether they are athletes or not. This will never bring Sasha back, but we are hoping the changes will prevent another situation like this from occurring again…..
“To transform this tragedy into a message of hope, our efforts today continue to be on mental health awareness. Whether a rape victim, someone born with a disorder, or just going through a tough time, one in four will need mental health support at some point in their life. It is time that support is available when it is needed, without having to languish on a waiting list.”
Also responding to the report this week was Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who became head of the campus earlier this year and was not in Columbia at the time of the events involving Courey.
“I accept the findings,” Loftin said in a statement, “and acknowledge that we have a responsibility as a university to ensure that we are stronger in the future.”
He noted that Athletic Director Mike Alden has created a panel to look into how his department handles “student incidents and concerns.” The task force includes an independent prosecutor, the Mizzou campus sexual assault coordinator and the associate dean of the law school.
“Not unlike our peer institutions around the country, we must continue to examine our policies as they relate to alcohol and our enforcement of those policies. Missouri is not immune to the damaging consequences when alcohol and our young people mix.”
On a personal note, Loftin said, “I am the chancellor, but I am also a professor, a husband, a father of two and a grandfather of three. I take my responsibilities in all of my roles with the utmost seriousness, and I am committed to ensuring that we are a stronger community moving forward. We owe it to Sasha, her family and to all those entrusted to us.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noting that she is a former sex crimes prosecutor, announced what she called an “unprecedented congressional survey” of 350 colleges and universities to learn how sexual assaults are reported and handled on their campuses.
“This survey will give us an unprecedented look into exactly how our colleges and universities act — or sometimes, fail to act — to protect students, and bring perpetrators to justice,” she said in a statement.
“Just like the challenges we grappled with in confronting sexual assaults in our military, we need to ensure we have a firm grasp on the policies in place, and the reality on the ground, to inform any specific solutions. This survey is an important part of that effort.”
A draft of the survey includes questions about how many investigations of sexual harassment and sexual assault schools have conducted in the past four years. It also seeks information on whether students know how to file a Title IX complaint and whether schools try to determine the climate on campus regarding issues involving sexual assault.
Other questions ask about staff and faculty training in the area of sexual assault, reporting procedures and statistics for cases such as the use of “date rape” drugs.
McCaskill will be at Saint Louis University Thursday to take part in a training session on campus-based sexual assault policies and Title IX training.