Student: UM Title IX supportive, but no-contact order denied by Commissioner’s Office

Lawyer: ‘I’ve never heard of an administrator that doesn’t like a no-contact order’

By: - September 28, 2021 2:05 pm

A classroom in the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)

This story is a companion piece to two stories by the Daily Montanan focusing on complaints of sexual assault and harassment at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. Part 1 focuses on the law school administration’s response to those complaints, and Part 2 on concerns raised about an investigation conducted by a private firm. In this companion piece, one student describes her experience trying to get a no-contact order.

Alicia Arant is director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX at the University of Montana. Some female law students from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law interviewed by the Daily Montanan about their experiences trying to report sexual assault, harassment and other complaints to administrators said Arant was responsive and tried to help, unlike the law school dean and associate dean of students.

A Missoula woman who had long dreamed of being a Grizzly and a lawyer said she didn’t report being sexually assaulted because she feared her character and fitness application to the American Bar Association would be compromised after hearing another student relay a threat her friend received at the law school.

However, the Missoula woman did go with a faculty member to the Title IX office to request a no-contact order against another law student, and she said Arant was helpful to her. Once the compliance officer with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education stepped in, though, the student said she did not receive the no-contact order Arant had planned to provide.

“Alicia (Arant) felt to me very supportive and kind, and promised that a no-contact directive would be issued,” the woman said. “And I either just don’t understand what happened or just didn’t get a good enough explanation as to why it had to go from Alicia to Jessica (compliance officer Jessica Weltman in the Commissioner’s Office), but in one day, it did.”

The day after Arant assured her the Title IX office would issue a no-contact order, the woman said she was contacted by Weltman, who said she had spoken with the male student. The woman said Weltman told her, “quote unquote — these words are stuck in my head — he assured her he would not contact me.” 

The woman provided a series of emails that showed the response from the compliance officer.

“Based (on) all of the circumstances and on the clear statement he made, it was unnecessary to implement a ‘formal’ no-contact directive,” said the email from Weltman. “However, he is aware and the expectation is clear that if he acts in a retaliatory manner, the university could put in place more restrictive measures and/or begin an investigation.”

The woman said she felt like she had wasted her time, and she replied: “How does giving you his word protect me from the malicious conduct he’s exhibited towards me?”

John Clune, a lawyer based in Colorado who defends victims of sexual assault including in high profile cases and on college campuses, said no-contact orders are among the easiest strategies schools use in such conflicts. He said that’s because schools can impose no-contact orders without any formal proceedings.

“I’ve never heard of an administrator that doesn’t like a no-contact order,” he said.

Clune also said universities like issuing no-contact orders because they are an action they can take that is much easier than undertaking a full investigation and determining whether someone committed a sexual assault.

“They’ll jump at issuing a no-contact order if they can avoid the more difficult job of actually going through the grievance process,” Clune said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense” to refrain from issuing one.

However, he also said a school may proceed with a Title IX investigation anyway if it believes the suspected student is a dangerous individual and the campus is concerned about the safety of the student requesting the no-contact order or other students.

The Daily Montanan sent questions to Weltman and received responses from Helen Thigpen, executive director of government relations and public affairs in the Commissioner’s Office. In an email, Thigpen said a no-contact directive is a mutual non-punitive support measure that can be issued verbally or in writing. Oftentimes, she said oral instruction by a university administrator is enough to stop unwanted contact. She could not discuss the reason the Commissioner’s Office was involved in this particular case.

“It is not uncommon for staff in the Commissioner’s office to assist the campuses in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, including as a result of work-load, experience in a particular area, or to address the possibility of a perceived or actual conflict of interest,” Thigpen wrote in an email. “ … Decisions are made and remade based on available and often evolving information, specific circumstances, best practice, and professional judgment.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”