UM students: Title IX investigation ‘biggest waste of … time,’ ‘bulls—‘

Grand River Solutions timelines, process scrutinized by students, expert

By: - September 28, 2021 11:53 am

UM provost announces interim leadership at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of two stories focusing on complaints of sexual assault and harassment at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. This story looks at shortcomings students described with the investigation by a private firm UM hired to evaluate complaints. Since May, the Daily Montanan has spoken with 13 current or former law school students about the climate at the law school.

Female law students and alumna of the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law are calling into question a report from an outside firm that investigated a series of allegations related to the law school, including that two of its top leaders discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults. One student is appealing the outcome.

The university hired Grand River Solutions in July 2020 to investigate complaints related to the law school including a sexual assault allegation by a student, the Daily Montanan earlier reported. The California firm, which UM said was paid $73,496 for its work, describes its specialty in part as providing Title IX, equity and Clery Act support services to institutions of higher education.

A UM spokesperson described reasons the campus brings on outside companies for investigations: “On occasion, UM hires outside professional independent contractors to work on particular matters for a variety of reasons. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX utilizes this policy in instances such as staffing needs due to volume of work or avoiding a potential conflict of interest.”

UM said it hired Grand River Solutions in particular because it is familiar with UM policy and state law and “because of their reputation as being regional experts on matters related to Title IX,” a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by institutions that receive federal funds. The 2020 contract followed a 2019 diversity audit by Grand River for which UM paid $4,100, according to the campus.

But the students interviewed by the Daily Montanan said the Grand River Solutions investigators breached confidentiality, withheld statements that could have been rebutted, did not follow through on scheduled interviews and didn’t follow up on evidence presented to them.

The women said they were concerned that it took Grand River Solutions nearly 11 months to present its findings to UM, although UM’s Title IX office says it aims to conduct investigations within 60 days.

Grand River Solutions directed questions from the Daily Montanan to the compliance officer with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. The Commissioner’s Office did not respond to the questions.

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said cases differ, and depending on the circumstances, 11 months can be considered a timely response. The case involved multiple complainants with multiple allegations, as well as multiple respondents.

“UM is committed to conducting investigations in a prompt, thorough, and fair manner,” Kuntz said in a statement. “In each investigation, the amount of time needed varies and each case depends on the nature of available information.”

The university does not release Title IX investigation reports in order to protect student privacy.

John Clune, recognized as a top lawyer in the country defending survivors of assault and harassment, agreed that while it’s a good goal, 60 days to complete an investigation might be an ambitious timeline. He said it’s not uncommon for schools to need more time and flexibility given scheduling conflicts and other reasonable factors, such as tracking down witnesses.

“Eleven months is too long,” said Clune, who is based in Boulder, Colorado, with Hutchinson, Black and Cook. “When you’re looking at an investigation into sexual abuse that takes 11 months, you’ll be lucky if the reporting party, the complainant, is still a student at your school by the end of the 11 months. It is so difficult for survivors of sexual abuse to continue to go to school.”

Clune was not involved in the UM investigation but answered questions about the proceedings from the Daily Montanan. He said campus grievance procedures should spell out timelines and deadlines for resolution, schools or contracted firms should follow them, and complainants and respondents should be apprised of delays.

Jennifer Robichaud, who is in her final year of law school, is among those whose complaints against the school were investigated by Grand River. She filed her complaint in fall 2020 alleging in part retaliation by the dean and associate dean of students for interfering with and discouraging reports to the Title IX office. She said a series of incidents, including sexual assault allegations, left her feeling student safety was compromised and law school administrators were not adequately responsive.

In the course of Grand River’s investigation, Robichaud said she was not afforded the opportunity to review a statement the associate dean of students provided to investigators to address omissions or provide relevant facts; she received the statement only after appealing Grand River’s findings. Emails she provided to the Daily Montanan from the university verified she did not receive the material until after Grand River concluded its investigation. She said she also repeatedly asked for a timeline but never received one.

Robichaud appealed the findings; the appeal is pending at UM. She also plans to pursue her case with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and with the Montana Human Rights Bureau. She declined to discuss whether she would pursue litigation.

UM said all parties were apprised of the timeline and kept informed: “Everyone involved is encouraged regularly to reach out to seek updates when needed.” However, neither UM nor Grand River demonstrated they provided parties with notices of delay when asked by the Daily Montanan for verification.

“There’s this understanding that things need to move as quickly as they can because you run the risk of a student having to forgo their education, which is exactly what Title IX is supposed to try to prevent,” Clune said.

He also said Grand River erred in not sharing all the information with Robichaud and should have acknowledged as much to her. He said it’s possible that doing so would not have changed the outcome of the investigation, but a complainant needs the chance to provide impeaching information if she has it.

“Both sides should get everything the other side submitted,” Clune said. “This whole thing comes down to a credibility determination on one side or the other.” 

Robichaud is not alone in her concerns about Grand River’s investigation.

A Missoula woman, who confided a rape and sexual assault to Robichaud and told the Daily Montanan she did not report the assaults against her at the time they occurred because she did not believe she had proof that would satisfy law enforcement, said her confidentiality was breached when investigators shared her name with another witness. She said she learned of the breach from that witness. She provided the Daily Montanan a letter her lawyer wrote to Grand River advising the team to stop sharing her name with others and cease contact with her.

Another law student called as a witness shared a chain of emails that showed Grand River had reached out to her in November 2020 and requested her testimony. She followed up the same month to reschedule a meeting, but Grand River did not reschedule with her, and when she followed up in May 2021, Grand River said the fact-finding had concluded.

Another woman, who told the Daily Montanan she had been raped but had never reported it, said she was interviewed by the Grand River investigators but felt they were not listening: “Midway through the interview, I realized it was bulls—. I could tell they weren’t taking it seriously.” She said she was told by one of the complainants the investigators didn’t use any of the information she provided about her own assault by the same law school student in their findings.

Clune said schools have an ongoing struggle over how to deal with separate allegations by the same suspect that emerge in their investigations. Montana isn’t alone in the field of schools that don’t use that kind of information, he said, in part because offenders are suing, some on a regular basis.

“I don’t agree with the practice, but it’s not uncommon,” he said.

Bre Koffman, a third-year law student, said the investigators met with her multiple times, and she provided them emails and names of other people who could corroborate information, but Grand River didn’t follow up: “​​It was just the biggest waste of my time.”

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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.”

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