Source: Appeal committee finds Jacob Elder retaliated

By: - November 3, 2021 5:16 pm

Jacob Elder is a law student at UM and mayoral candidate for Missoula. In May, he maintained his innocence in response to a sexual assault allegation to the Daily Montanan. He declined to comment on sexual assault allegations, including rape, for this story. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)

Defeated mayoral candidate Jacob Elder retaliated against a University of Montana complainant for participating in a Title IX investigation against him, according to a source familiar with the findings by an appeal committee on campus.

Elder, a student at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, did not respond to a request for comment or questions Wednesday about whether he planned to appeal the recent decision by the committee. The decision reverses the outcome of an earlier investigation by a private firm UM hired.

Elder lost his bid Tuesday to serve as Missoula mayor to incumbent John Engen. Engen took 62 percent of the vote, and Elder took 36 percent, according to the most recent results posted Wednesday by the Missoula County Elections Office.

UM is not disclosing the status of the case that involves Elder but confirmed any party may appeal the outcome of the Discrimination Grievance Committee to the Commissioner of Higher Education. Elder has maintained that he did not violate the student code of conduct.

In its decision, the appeal committee also upheld an earlier finding that former law school Dean Paul Kirgis and former Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver did not retaliate against a student, but the committee made several troubling observations about both employees, according to the source familiar with the investigation. The appeal committee is composed of a representative appointed by each of the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, Student Senate, and a chair appointed by the president.

In September, the Daily Montanan was the first to report that three women from the law school said Kirgis and Weaver deterred them from taking complaints of sexual harassment and assault to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles sexual misconduct, discrimination and retaliation on campus.

In July 2020, UM hired Grand River Solutions, a private firm based in California, and paid them more than $73,000 to investigate a series of Title IX complaints out of the UM law school. The complaints included retaliation allegations against the dean and associate dean of students and sexual assault and retaliation allegations against Elder.

UM earlier said the firm’s investigation found Kirgis and Weaver did not retaliate. In June, Elder said on social media the investigation cleared him; he had described the allegations to the Daily Montanan as sexual assault and being a sexual predator. Elder has not been charged with any crime. 

But law student Jennifer Robichaud, a complainant who had alleged retaliation by the deans and by Elder, appealed the findings of Grand River Solutions. Robichaud declined to comment on the appeal committee’s decision, but she confirmed she plans to file a case with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

Although the appeal committee found the former law school leaders did not retaliate, the panel said Weaver acted as a “gatekeeper” to Title IX, potentially slowing down the reporting process, according to the source familiar with the investigation.

The committee also recognized the power disparity between Weaver and students, suggesting that her position of authority could be interpreted by students as a “directive or suggestion not to report a complaint to Title IX,” the source said.

The committee also found that while Kirgis’ behavior was not “retaliatory, he did not appear to be responsive to student needs” and helped “create a toxic climate for some students in the law school.”

Finally, the source said, the committee observed that the law school community may have been better served through “stronger leadership.”

Following student protests, both Kirgis and Weaver resigned from their leadership positions in October. Kirgis remains on faculty, and Weaver remains at the law school. Weaver’s contract expires on May 14, 2022, according to UM; her role on campus until then remains unclear.

In an email, Weaver declined to comment on the appeal committee’s decision, and Kirgis did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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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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