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Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the Missoula, Mont., Press Conference


Missoula, MT
United States

Good Afternoon. I would like to thank President Engstrom, Mayor Engen, Chief Muir, and County Attorney Van Valkenberg for joining us here today. I would also like to thank my friend and colleague, United States Attorney Michael Cotter, for his leadership and partnership in this case. Federal civil rights enforcement is a joint venture between the Civil Rights Division and United States Attorneys’ offices nationwide.

Everyone here today has a shared interest in ensuring that the city of Missoula, including the university which is a centerpiece of the city, is a safe, vibrant community. We share the goal of ensuring that everyone feels welcome, and that all students, residents and visitors have full confidence that the University, the City and the County will protect them.

Education is the great equalizer. The University of Montana has been providing a wonderful pathway to upward mobility for generations of students. In order to learn, all students must feel safe and must feel supported.

Late last year, the Department became aware of serious concerns that alleged sexual assaults of women, including but not limited to students at the University of Montana, were not being investigated in a prompt and adequate fashion. In the past three years, there have been at least 80 reported rapes in Missoula. At least 11 sexual assaults involving University students are alleged to have occurred in the past 18 months.

Our review to date involved interviews with numerous people, and a review of documents and other information. Our primary focus is not the number of reported allegations of sexual assault; rather, our focus is on the response.

I am here to announce that the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s office are conducting a full investigation of the University of Montana, the University Office of Public Safety, the City of Missoula Police Department and the office of the Missoula County Attorney.

The purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the University and the law enforcement agencies acted promptly, adequately, and fairly to protect the safety of women and whether the university, the police, and the county attorney have comprehensive and integrated systems in place to do so.

As to the University, we are investigating whether it responds promptly and effectively to allegations of sexual assault and harassment on campus and has taken the necessary steps to combat sexual violence and sexual harassment across the University community. The University has a legal obligation under federal civil rights laws to respond effectively and expeditiously to sexual violence and sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its impacts. Equally if not more importantly, the University has a compact with its students, their families and the community: to build and sustain a safe, nurturing and vibrant learning environment where students receive critical preparation to succeed in life, and a campus that is a place of learning and an incubator of innovation and critical thinking. The playing field at the University of Montana, and at every college and university across the country, must be a place for all students; all students must feel safe and have confidence in the university’s demonstrated commitment to protect them. President Engstrom understands this. I would like to thank you for your cooperation; your leadership has been impressive.

As to the Missoula Police Department, the University’s Office of Public Safety, and the County Attorney’s office, we are examining whether these offices have engaged in a pattern or practice of failing to investigate or prosecute sexual assaults against women in Missoula, including students at the University of Montana. The investigation will examine alleged assaults against all women, not only University students. These law enforcement agencies have a legal obligation under federal laws to ensure that such serious allegations of sexual assault are investigated in an adequate and effective manner.

These law enforcement agencies also recognize the public safety imperative. Their job is to protect and serve, and the most important currency a police officer and a prosecutor have is the respect and confidence of the community. One key objective of our investigation is to ensure that you can retain that respect by having a comprehensive and integrated system in place for the full, fair, and independent investigation of all sexual assault allegations.

It is important to underscore that this is a civil investigation. We are not investigating whether any University official or law enforcement official has engaged in criminal conduct, and we are not investigating the allegations of rape or sexual assault for potential federal criminal prosecution. Rather, our focus is on systemic issues, that is, do the University and the law enforcement agencies have the necessary policies and practices in place to protect women in a comprehensive and integrated manner.

Our investigation will be thorough, fair, and independent. We do not prejudge our investigations; we will follow the facts, wherever they lead us. Our team will continue to reach out to a wide range of stakeholders to gather a full and complete picture of what has occurred and the steps needed, if any, to move forward. Our eyes and ears are wide open, and we are eager for input from members of the University community, the County Attorney’s Office, Missoula Police Department, and other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system and the community at large.

The voices of women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed must be heard. Your experiences are critically important to us, and a key part of our investigation. Please contact us toll-free by phone at 1-855-307-6103 or via email at

Yesterday, a team of lawyers from the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office met with the Mayor, Chief of Police, University President and the County Attorney. I had the pleasure of meeting with them this morning. Over the course of decades, Department attorneys, staff, and experts have worked collaboratively with communities across the country to address systemic problems and implement comprehensive and durable solutions that reduce crime, protect the rule of law, and enhance public confidence in local institutions, including law enforcement agencies, schools and universities.

Here in Missoula, we look forward to working cooperatively to address the issues that lie at the heart of our investigation. Indeed, they have already begun to do so - the University and the City recently launched “It’s Your Call 911”, a new effort with the Mayor’s Office to provide students and residents information on the avenues available to report sexual assault; initiated an expanded series of forums and discussions about sexual assault on campus, including the Men Can Stop Rape program to engage all students in prevention efforts; put into place a new Student-Athlete Conduct Code and a revised Student Conduct Code; and generally mandated reporting of sexual assault by employees to the Title IX Coordinator.

We look forward to working collaboratively in these ongoing efforts so that women receive the protection they need to learn in an environment free of discrimination, to live without fear of sexual assault or harassment, and to ensure that – if sexual assault does occur – they are treated with dignity and fairness.

Together, we will identify any problems to be addressed and brainstorm about possible solutions.

Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014