Tension between two panels at a meeting of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee last week ended with emotional public criticism of UNM’s policies and procedures dealing with sexual assault.
The first panel, fronted by UNM President Bob Frank, provided updates on UNM’s efforts to address and combat sexual assault.
The second panel included Ashlynn Ota and Aubriana Romero-Knell - two survivors of sexual assault - as well as New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs attorney Claire Harwell, Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico Director May Sagbakken, New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs Executive Director Kim Alaburda, and NMCSAP Director Karen Herman.
State Rep. Christine Trujillo said UNM didn’t meet the standard for sincerity at the legislative hearing and that she wasn’t satisfied with their response.
"UNM gave us information we wanted to hear. I don't think they really believe it," Trujillo said.
Dean of Students Nasha Torrez said victims have the right to be angry when they feel their cases are handled insufficiently by UNM. She said she is concerned that people aren’t getting the message that University administration has been trying hard to spread: UNM really cares about solving its problems, and it is continuing to look for ways to show it.
A Mimi Stewart said UNM isn’t giving students enough of a voice, and because students are the ones who navigate the process, there should be a more formal way for them to be constantly involved.
Office of Equal Opportunity Francie Cordova said UNM is ahead of other universities in their efforts, pointing to a new data management system that should help OEO more effectively find perpetrators with previous reports filed against them.
“Educating members of the campus community on civil rights laws is just as important to us as improving investigative techniques,” she said.
Frank asked the legislature to amend the Inspection of Public Records Act to protect witnesses, adding it currently only redacts the identity of the accused.
"As far as statistics go," Frank said, "one case of sexual assault is one too many."
Harwell said she hopes that other institutions will learn about how to deal with sexual assault through UNM’s example. She said what UNM is learning applies to other institutions - even kindergarten through high school - which probably aren’t meeting legal standards either.
Harwell condemned UNM's handling of sexual assault as illegal, and claimed that the institution is now working diligently only to meet the lowest level of its requirements.
"UNM has difficulty meeting the floor responsibilities under federal law," Harwell said. "There's nothing sinister about the DOJ's findings."
University Counsel Elsa Cole said the DOJ investigation and its results focused on policies and procedures rather than one particular incident, which isn’t common in their investigations.
Harwell said there’s nothing malevolent about the DOJ’s investigation, and that aggressive enforcement of requirements has been in effect since 2004.
She said that while she applauds victims who had a problem with UNM’s reporting process coming forward to publicly share their negative experience, other victims are deferred from coming forward because the victims who have come forward aren’t adequately supported or listened to.
The increase in anxiety symptoms associated with institutional betrayal is similar to the anxiety a victim has when having contact with the offender, Harwell said.
Harwell said she has had clients seated next to their assailants and stalked in their classrooms by their assailants. Faculty members need to understand their obligation when a student makes a disclosure to them, she said.
Saggbakken acknowledged that UNM has made great strides towards addressing sexual assault, but said UNM improvements are only part of the truth.
“The truth is UNM was dragged kicking and screaming to make the reforms they have made," she said. "UNM wouldn't have made these changes without the DOJ report," she said.
Neither UNM nor President Frank have apologized to victims, victims' families, students or faculty, but instead have downplayed sexual violence, Saggbakken said.
Alaburda encouraged the legislative members to have oversight over whether institutions are in compliance with legal requirements. She said that while many focus on survivors learning defense tactics, the pressure and focus should be on perpetrators to stop them from committing violent crimes.
"There needs to be pressure on those who think certain behavior is okay," Alaburda said. "When someone experiences the trauma of sexual violence it changes the chemistry of their brain."
Romero-Knell - also an ASUNM senator - said the reason for lack of student representation is that no victim sides with UNM administration at this point.
She said UNM fights harder for the academic success of the accused than it does for the victim.
“By not properly pursuing those accused of sexual assault we communicate that it's acceptable,” Romero-Knell said. "I think everyone knows rape is wrong. I don't think everyone knows what rape is, or what constitutes rape. It's important to teach people about consent.”
Herman said 25 percent of NM women experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, compared to 20 percent nationally, while five percent of NM men will experience a completed or attempted rape in their lifetime, compared to three percent nationally.
She said at least half of sexual assault survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder along with other health challenges including addiction, higher risk of teen pregnancy, and higher risk of experiencing future violence.
Early intervention with comprehensive services for survivors can lessen all potential negative outcomes, Herman said.
After both panels spoke and answered questions from the legislature, the floor was given to volunteer speakers from the community.
Danielle Kabella, a UNM graduate student, said other students and herself made reports to OEO about one professor in the anthropology department.
Kabella said the professor gave a failing grade to her, while another student in the class whom her professor wanted to sleep with received a higher grade. An eight-month departmental investigation resulted in the professor being found an imminent threat to students.
The professor was suspended and later reinstated, she said. Kabella found that available UNM resources along with supportive professors she sought help from had no more power than she did.
Ronda Brulotte, UNM associate professor, said too often the picture of sexual assault is painted with athletes and fraternity brothers as perpetrators.
Her experience with sexual assault involves graduate students and faculty, she said.
Brulotte read all 37 pages of the DOJ report, adding that she could have written it because it's congruent with her experiences over the past year in terms of what she and her students have experienced in the anthropology department.
"This goes on in all departments, not just mine," Brulotte said. "I don't have a daughter or son but if I did I wouldn't send them to [UNM] because I don't think it's a safe environment."
Brulotte said many have left the department or are in the process of leaving due to fear of retaliation, and she added that she was offended by Frank's comments, noting that he left the hearing early.
Rachel Levitt, also a UNM student, said that many perpetrators of sexual assault are UNM faculty members. Other faculty put their tenures and careers on the line to be on the side of victims, Levitt said.
Levitt also emphasized that the conversation on sexual assault continually leaves out transgender people when 50 to 66 percent of transgender people experience sexual assault, and that when transgender people experience sexual assault it usually happens multiple times.
By December 2016, UNM expects to have approximately 17,400 continuing students complete mandatory online training for sexual assault.
“It is time we tell the truth. Not the easy part of the truth that make parents feel better about sending their children to UNM. We need to tell the whole truth in order to keep those students safe on campus," Saggbaken said. "It is only when trauma is brought to light and dealt with openly that survivors can move forward and fulfill their potential."