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U of U sex assault reporting complaint draws feds' attention anew

FILE "“ The parking lot of the Merrill Engineering Building on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City is seen on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. A pair of University of Utah graduates dissatisfied with how the school handled a 2016 report of rape on campu
FILE "“ The parking lot of the Merrill Engineering Building on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City is seen on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. A pair of University of Utah graduates dissatisfied with how the school handled a 2016 report of rape on campus has drawn new federal scrutiny to the college.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of University of Utah graduates dissatisfied with how the school reported a 2016 allegation of rape on campus has drawn new federal scrutiny to the college, a recently released document shows.

The new oversight stems from a report made on Halloween, when a woman told campus police she was raped in the back of her car at gunpoint by someone in a mask.

Two-and-a-half hours passed before the school sent a text-message alert, and the notification failed to note the alleged firearm, "thus putting the entire campus in harm's way," according to Harley Lennon and Jenny Larsen, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in November.

University of Utah police see it differently.

They take crime reporting "extremely seriously on our campus," said Chief Dale Brophy. On Oct. 31, his agency released an email alert with more details than in the text, and he corrected a separate oversight as soon as he learned of the lapse caused by a computer glitch, he said.

Nevertheless, the Education Department is requiring the university to make changes, though it isn't specifying what they will look like or how many it will impose. The department plans to monitor the school to make sure they take effect, a federal education officer said in a Wednesday letter emailed to Lennon as well as several Utah lawmakers and journalists.

"I would have never thought that we would have gotten the response that we did," Lennon said. "It's kind of a pleasant surprise."

At the U., campus police eventually closed the rape investigation, saying they had no leads after interviewing hundreds, watching surveillance footage and reviewing forensic evidence. But schools are required to publicly log any allegations of violence, sustained or not, the students noted.

The federal Jeanne Clery Act requires colleges to disclose crimes on campus and issue timely warnings about them if they pose a threat to students. More than 100 universities have come under investigation for alleged violations and many have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. If colleges don't comply, they risk losing federal financial aid funding.

In their investigation of the U., the feds detected “certain potentially serious shortcomings in the university’s campus safety operations and Clery Act compliance program," wrote Candace McLaren, director of the Clery Compliance Division. Her office will "conduct an appropriate intervention to ensure that corrective action is taken," she continued.

McLaren didn't give specifics, but said her division would "closely monitor" the school and could open further probes. The agency doesn't release details of the investigations until it issues a final report, a spokesman said.

No other Utah college has been found in violation of the reporting requirements. And it's not the first time the compliance officers have scrutinized the U. In 2011, they told the school to clean up its reporting and reminded it to make sure its crime log was available online.

The new probe comes amid growing national attention to campus sexual assault, and at a time when four Utah schools, including the U., are under a separate type of federal civil rights investigation related to sexual assault. The civil rights probes generally stem from students alleging their own reports were mishandled.

Under the campus crime-reporting law, alerts sent to students and others should be "timely," but there's no explicit time limit.

Even so, Lennon and Larsen said the 2 1/2 hour lag was a problem. They said it went against a university policy stating that at-large suspects of violent and sexual crimes pose a threat to those on campus.

"There has to be a better process for how we're handling sexual assault and crime," Lennon said.

She and Larsen, friends who graduated in December, alleged the university also missed a Clery Act deadline to update its crime log within two business days. They said the rape report was published about three weeks later.

University police welcome guidance on how they can improve, Brophy said, adding that delays sometimes are unavoidable.

Some investigations are quick, but others, such as the Halloween report, take more time for detectives to make sure they have accurate information to give to students, Brophy said.

A text-message alert from campus police that day didn't mention the gun, but it pointed students to an email that did provide more information, including about the firearm, he said.

Lennon and Larsen were spurred to action by "The Hunting Ground," the documentary on campus rape, and spent two days researching campus crime reporting rules.

They met with Dean of Students Lori McDonald and Brophy in late November, to discuss the issues they later outlined in the complaint, Lennon said. The women wanted to prevent similar lapses in the future, so they sent the document to Washington.

In the meeting, Brophy said his staff would publish the alleged assault on the university's crime log that day, and it did, Lennon said.

“It was remedied two hours after it was brought to our attention and hasn’t been a problem since," Brophy said.

His department earlier had deemed the incident a high priority, so it was password-protected in the agency's computer system, he said. The added security barred it from automatically populating a log published on its website.

Brophy last heard from federal compliance officers in December, when they asked him to provide them with information related to the report, he said.

Meanwhile, the U. is taking steps to improve campus safety.

In June it set aside $400,000 to pay for better lighting and security cameras, a standalone safety website, an additional victim advocate, and a full-time counselor position in its Women's Center, among other resources.

A spokeswoman for the university said the school had no further comment beyond Brophy's response.

In the letter embedded in this story, The Deseret News redacted the email addresses of the students who made the complaint. The other addresses were left intact because they are publicly available online.