(Daily Montanan) Three women from the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law say the dean and associate dean of students deterred them from taking allegations of sexual harassment and assault to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles sexual misconduct on campus.

A fourth female law student told the Daily Montanan she did not report a rape because she learned of the difficulties other students faced. However, when she told a professor she could not be in a group with one particular male student, she said she received a call from Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver asking why.

“I know that you know there are problems with him,” the student said she told Weaver. “And you can just count on that for why I don’t want to be in a group with him. She kept saying, ‘You’re going to have to work with people you don’t like.’ I kept saying, ‘It’s not that I just don’t like him.’”

The Daily Montanan grants anonymity to survivors of sexual assault and is not naming women who have made sexual assault allegations or who otherwise fear retaliation in their legal careers. They are among 13 current or former law school students the Daily Montanan spoke with over the past four months who said law school leadership falls far short in its support of female students.

The students and lawyers don’t represent a majority of the law school enrollment of some 248, which is roughly half female, but each shared or confirmed troubling accounts about their time there.

Students said they waited months for problems they raised with Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean of Students Weaver to be resolved, feared retaliation for raising concerns, and struggled academically from the accompanying stress despite being top performers in their academic careers. Some walked in the door joyful to pursue their dream careers but walked out disillusioned about being lawyers. Some left before earning degrees.

The students’ stories come at a time the university faces separate allegations of gender discrimination by four women, one current and three former high ranking employees, in a federal case filed last month. At least 18 additional women have raised similar discrimination allegations, according to an amended complaint requesting class action status for the female employees. UM has described the claims as “baseless and without merit.”

Weaver and Kirgis both declined in-person interviews with the Daily Montanan but responded in writing to questions about incidents students discussed. UM confirmed Kirgis and Weaver both are mandatory reporters by campus policy, required to report possible sexual misconduct involving students to the Title IX office within 24 hours “in order to enable UM to respond effectively.”

Title IX is a portion of a federal education law that prohibits discrimination or harassment based on sex by any institution that receives money from the federal government.

In emailed responses, Weaver said she has never dissuaded any student from filing a Title IX complaint, and she said trauma survivors often have difficulty accurately reporting their experiences. 

Kirgis defended the law school: “The School of Law has and continues to accurately educate all employees and students about their rights and responsibilities under UM’s Title IX policy and procedures, including the mandatory reporting policy.”

Investigation completed, findings appealed

The students’ allegations are related to a series of complaints investigated by a private firm last school year. In July 2020, UM hired Grand River Solutions, which describes its specialty in part as providing Title IX support services to institutions of higher education, to investigate multiple allegations by women in the law school.

One law school student has been at the center of the women’s complaints: Jacob Elder of Helena.

The Daily Montanan previously reported Grand River Solutions investigated Elder, a Missoula mayoral candidate, on an allegation of sexual assault. Elder has not been charged with any related crimes, and UM investigations are not criminal proceedings.

Elder, a Grizzlies redshirt at UM in 2011, maintained his innocence in a May 5 call with the Daily Montanan. At the time, Elder said the university already had informed him that he had not violated the student conduct code, but then UM hired a private firm to investigate the same matter. 

In a social media post in June, Elder said the outside investigation “exonerated” him. He declined to provide documentation to the Daily Montanan or identify who at UM had told him that he had not violated the student conduct code prior to the Grand River investigation.

A source familiar with the investigation confirmed that the Title IX office did not make any rulings or inform any parties of any findings until after Grand River had completed its work with UM in June 2021.

In the municipal primary election Sept. 14, Elder advanced in his bid for mayor, and his name and that of incumbent Mayor John Engen will appear on the Nov. 2 all mail general election ballot.

The Grand River Solutions’ investigation also looked into allegations that Kirgis and Weaver, two of the top law school leaders, discouraged and intimidated students from taking complaints, including sexual assault allegations, to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, according to documents obtained by the Daily Montanan.

UM confirmed in June that Grand River delivered the investigation report or reports it was hired to produce but could not publicly discuss the findings. However, UM noted any party dissatisfied with the outcome could file an appeal, and UM confirmed this month the results of the investigation remain under appeal.

Jennifer Robichaud, a law student and former nurse who alleged retaliation in one of complaints that was part of the Grand River investigation, confirmed she appealed the firm’s findings. In her complaint, she alleged administrators intimidated her from going to the Title IX office to report a sexual assault against her friend and an unrelated potential violation from an incident in class. 

Robichaud said the law school should be setting the standard high for the way the campus handles reports of sexual misconduct and retaliation: “The law school should be above reproach.” 

But she said trying to understand how to handle Title IX issues at the law school was daunting. Students are studying 60 hours a week, many don’t understand their rights under Title IX, and they look up to the faculty, including the dean and associate dean of students, she said. UM tapped Kirgis to serve as acting provost from April 2018 through July 2018, making him the chief academic officer of the university in that period.

“These are lawyers,” Robichaud said. “The power disparity is huge, and it’s exploited. I just wish I would have known.”

Acknowledging student fears

The problems the firm investigated had started by fall 2019, and the situation that unfolded the following semesters left these female law students and others feeling vulnerable in classes, unsure about whether to report possible Title IX violations or how to do so, and fearing the dean of the law school would not sign off on their character and fitness, an American Bar Association requirement for admission to the bar.

A September 2020 memo from Kirgis, Weaver and Title IX Director Alicia Arant to two law students acknowledged the students’ concerns and outlined steps the administrators would take in response.

“We appreciate you raising concerns about the avenues for reporting discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking and retaliation to University Officials in order to receive appropriate responses without the fear of retaliation,” said the memo. “We apologize on behalf of the University that existing processes have caused you to feel distressed and dissatisfied.”

Additionally, the memo acknowledged the students feared repercussions in their applications to the bar: “We want to ensure that any perception that the dean or a faculty member or anyone else can simply refuse to certify a student’s character and fitness based on a subjective dislike of the student is dispelled. Details about the objective criteria that are considered will be provided.”

In his email to the Daily Montanan, Kirgis said the memo outlined existing practices. In her emailed response, Weaver said the document reflected the law school’s commitment to address student concerns: “The memo was not an admission of any wrongdoing but rather a collective acknowledgement of best practices.”

Blocked from Title IX? 

Robichaud and five other female law students, whom the Daily Montanan is not identifying, shared four separate instances where they said the dean or associate dean of students directly or indirectly discouraged them from taking complaints to the Title IX office or interfered with their ability to do so.

They were:

  • One woman told Weaver that her friend who was a fellow law student had been sexually assaulted by Elder, and she said Weaver told her the law school would handle the incident in-house. She said Weaver later threatened to report her and her friend to the bar association for being vindictive if they didn’t drop the matter. She said she felt ill after convincing her friend a report to Title IX was not warranted.
  • The friend also told Weaver in early 2020 that she was sexually assaulted by Elder, and Weaver told her she had the training and authority to evaluate such issues herself, the student told the Daily Montanan. She said the associate dean told her a report to the Title IX office would be “unnecessary.”
  • In spring 2020, Robichaud said she told Kirgis that Elder sexually assaulted her friend, who had received the phone call from Weaver. Kirgis told Robichaud he did not believe the incident required a report to the Title IX office, which handles sexual misconduct on campus; nonetheless, he said he would inform Title IX, Robichaud recalled. When the Title IX director contacted her, Robichaud said the director said the dean had not mentioned the phrase “sexual assault” in his call. (See sidebar at bottom of story.)
  • Robichaud and three other students also said they took a classroom management problem to Weaver on separate occasions, and they said she advised them a report to the Title IX office would inhibit the law school’s ability to address the matter. The students told the Daily Montanan a professor repeated slurs for gay people, allowed the class to do the same, and mocked child sexual abuse. (See sidebar at bottom of story.)

In an email, Weaver said the only time she ever received a complaint of sexual misconduct by another student, she reported it to campus authorities; she said the student had no interest in filing a formal complaint with Title IX but was not dissuaded from doing so.

She also said she never threatened a student: “I have thought long and hard about anything I might have said that a student could have heard in this way, and it simply did not happen.

“I have been trained in and worked in areas of trauma-informed counseling. I know that survivors who have experienced trauma often find it challenging to process information and accurately report their experiences and perceptions.

“I have been trained to go slowly, to allow survivors to exercise as much control over the situation as possible, to repeatedly test understanding. If I fell short in my obligations to these students in the areas of trauma informed counseling, I suspect it was because I went too fast, used terms and concepts that I erroneously assumed they would understand, and failed to test their understanding. Lessons learned.”

In response to the complaints about the professor, Weaver said she personally reported the concerns on the day she received them to both the Title IX office and UM’s general counsel: “We followed their recommendations with respect to the conduct of the investigation and the actions that were taken in response.”

In an email to the Daily Montanan, Kirgis said he reported the matter Robichaud shared with him “to the best of my understanding and recollection.” Through a UM spokesperson, the Title IX office declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

Cierra Anderson, who graduated from the law school last school year, started a support group in fall 2019 for students who were survivors of domestic and sexual violence after seeing a lack of support at the law school.

Students confided in her, she said, and after three or four students told her they couldn’t go to the Title IX office because it would impact their character and fitness application to the bar, Anderson got her first inkling students were not getting correct information.

“When you have issues at the law school, you report to the associate dean or the dean himself,” Anderson said. “And Dean Kirgis and Dean Weaver were the people that predominantly people told me they went to. I wasn’t there for those specific conversations. I just know they came to me afterwards.”

UM has conducted 15 mandatory reporter trainings in the last 12 months, the campus said. The university confirmed that all employees who are not bound by confidentiality, such as therapists at Curry Health or advocates at the Student Advocacy Resource Center, must take suspected sexual misconduct to the Title IX office within 24 hours. UM noted students also need to take mandatory reporter training.

To report or not to report?

The woman who received the phone call from Weaver and confided in Robichaud told the Daily Montanan she decided not to take a rape and sexual assault report to law school administrators or the Title IX office because of threats other students faced in their attempts to do so.

She first provided an anonymous letter to the Daily Montanan and later agreed to an interview.

“I thought I might report the incident,” the student wrote in the letter. “Yet my fear held me back after a friend told me about her friend who encountered a similar experience with Jacob and made a report to the University of Montana’s dean of students at the law school. The woman was told by the law school administration that she didn’t have proof of what happened and if she ‘continued to harass’ Jacob (Elder), it would reflect negatively on her Character and Fitness application for admission to the State Bar.”

Elder, who has not been charged with any crimes, maintained his innocence to the Daily Montanan in the May 5 phone call and later on social media. Elder did not respond to either a Sept. 10 email requesting an interview or message sent on his campaign website.

When reached by phone Sept. 13, Elder said he had shared the Daily Montanan’s message with his lawyer. However, he declined to answer questions for this story. He did not respond to a Sept. 26 email or message to his campaign website requesting comment on the allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Friday, UM confirmed Elder remains enrolled at the School of Law.

The woman also said at the law school, race plays a role in the dynamics. In the letter, she said that Elder, a Black man from Liberia, told her that if she told anyone he had raped her, “he would make it known that I was just a ‘small-town, sheltered racist white girl.’” In the meantime, she said the law school has propped him up in its media outreach.

In an interview, the student described two alleged sexual assaults by Elder, one a rape and the other repeated groping at a downtown bar. She said she did not report either of the assaults from fall 2019 to the police either.

“What stopped me?’’ she asked. “It was really the fact that I was so traumatized that I could not pull the pieces of what had happened myself, and I couldn’t. I could not. There were so many times that I sat my boyfriend down to chat or one of my best friends down to chat, and I just didn’t tell them. So many times. Until I went to see a therapist and I started working on unfolding everything that had happened.”

She also said she was acutely aware that she had no physical proof and worried the Title IX office wouldn’t move forward without such evidence. That fear was reinforced by a conversation with a law student in another class, she said. “She had almost warned me there was a male student in my class who had done something to her friend that wasn’t very nice. She was like, just watch yourself. Be conscientious … I instantly asked her if it was Jacob. She said yes. And then she went into the story and told me her friend had brought this to the law school, and they didn’t do anything because she didn’t have any proof.

“I’m sitting there thinking to myself, why the hell would I do the same thing and have the same results? History repeats itself. I didn’t have any proof. I didn’t have a rape kit done. I didn’t make a police report. I had nothing. I had some witnesses at the Oxford (bar), but as far as me trying to prove to them that something happened, I didn’t have anything. I don’t have anything besides the trauma that I carry with me.”

Anderson, who had started the survivors support group, said people came to her with concerns about Elder. She said she warned members of the group to be careful with him; she could not share information other students discussed in the group, citing its confidential nature.

“There were definitely safety concerns that were communicated to me, which is unfortunate,” Anderson said of students outside the group. “And I know being a woman in law is really difficult, but being a woman in the law school, especially if you’re a survivor, it’s kind of difficult.”

A community history of sexual assault

In Missoula, law students in particular are aware of the community’s history with sexual assault, including the 2013 trial that acquitted Grizzlies football star Jordan Johnson of sexual intercourse without consent.

A year earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into UM for its failure to properly handle complaints of sexual assault, including rape. The sexual assault scandal was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book about campus rape, called “Missoula.”

Leading up to the federal probe, UM had hired a former Montana Supreme Court justice to review allegations two students were gang-raped, and that investigation grew to include nine sexual assault allegations from September 2010 to December 2011, plus two added later, according to reporting by the Missoulian. The former justice determined UM had “a problem with sexual assault on and off campus” and needed to take steps to “insure the safety of all students as well as faculty, staff and guests.”

The Department of Justice investigation that followed examined responses to sexual assault by not just UM but by city police and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. Agencies in Missoula signed agreements with the DOJ as a result.

The May 2013 findings said UM had made headway in reform but had not done enough to “fully eliminate a sexually hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” The flagship was tasked with revising policies and procedures to “encourage students to report sexual assault” and prohibit retaliation.

“It is in the University’s interest to encourage students to report sexual harassment early, before such conduct becomes severe or pervasive, so that it can take steps to prevent the harassment from creating a hostile environment,” the letter said.

UM agreed to instate lawful practices to comply with Title IX and avoid litigation, and the letter from federal authorities to then UM President Royce Engstrom and legal counsel Lucy France thanked the university for being cooperative in the investigation. The letter said the agreement would “serve as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.”

In the aftermath of the investigations, UM officials touted the status.

But five years later in a separate action in 2018, the U.S. Department of Education fined the campus nearly $1 million for reporting “inaccurate and misleading” crime statistics from 2012 to 2015. For example, federal authorities said UM had omitted 18 crimes, including a “forcible sexual offense” in 2013. 

The Jeanne Clery Act requires campuses that receive federal funds to report crime statistics so the public can assess campus safety, and the Education Department said people must be able to rely on data the university provides.

UM negotiated the fine down to $395,000 and paid it off in 2020.

John Clune, a lawyer described by the Washington Post as “one of the legal system’s most well-known advocates for victims of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses,” said Missoula has made strides in handling sexual assault, but women still make decisions about whether to report with the community’s history in mind.

“The reality is Missoula doesn’t have any of the challenges in law enforcement that we don’t have everywhere else in the country,” said Clune, of the Colorado firm Hutchinson, Black and Cook. “Missoula PD (Police Department) has done a lot of good work on sexual assault. The County Attorney’s Office does a lot of great work on sexual assaults. But if you followed the Jordan Johnson case, if you read ‘Missoula,’ these things are on the frontal lobe of survivors when they consider whether or not they should report. So it’s understandable.”

Research shows sexual violence is about somebody imposing their will upon somebody else without the person being able to do anything about it.

“So there’s this element of loss of control over their own existence, over their own body, that is central to recovering from sexual assault,” Clune said as to why many women do not report assaults to law enforcement authorities. “So what survivors almost across the board want to do in the aftermath is be able to take control back of their lives or their bodies.”

He said talking to the police sounds to most survivors like the worst way of dealing with that loss of control: “It can be terrifying … The idea of turning over your worst experience of your life over to people who are going to take it and run with it without you having a lot of input is about the last thing a survivor wants to do.”

 ‘It’s a boys’ club’

Once upon a time, Robichaud said she held the law school administration and faculty members in high regard. She praised some faculty members, including ones who have served as confidantes for students. But now, not the leadership. 

“I had them on a pedestal,” Robichaud said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, these are really smart people.’ And I wanted to impress them, and I wanted to be like them. So that’s why everything that has happened in the last year and a half has been so disappointing to me. I expected more.”

Her friend, who confided in Robichaud, said she grew up cheering for the Grizzlies football team and wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. She believed the university would learn from the debacle in 2012, and she wanted to attend law school in her hometown. But she said after she herself was raped and sexually assaulted, she found discouragement and hurt in the university’s response. (See companion story about her attempt to get a no-contact order.)

“They said they would protect our Grizzlies,” she said. “They would love our Grizzlies. And then they did the total opposite. And I just want to know: Which Grizzlies are they talking about? To me, it only seems like it’s men, it’s athletes, it’s the football team. It’s not me.” 

Anderson, who will continue to run the support group she created at the law school even after graduating, said female lawyers face an uphill battle both in school and in the legal field. At UM, she said, female students ran into problems despite having a female associate dean of students. 

“It’s a boys’ club,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a boys’ club, and I think that there are certain expectations.” At one point, she said a male professor had to remind a class that if they wouldn’t treat or speak to a male professor a certain way, they shouldn’t do the same to a female professor.

Bre Koffman, a third-year student, said Weaver’s style of leadership might have been effective 20 or 30 years ago, but it isn’t today: “I think she really cares. I think there’s just a disconnect between the way she feels and the way she executes.”

Koffman, other students and recent graduates largely hold faculty apart from the top administrators. Another woman said the administration pays lip service to equity, but she lauded the faculty: “They’re exceptional and not involved (in the problems students faced) and always had our backs.”

The only law school in Montana ranks well in some key areas. Earlier this year, the law school reported that more than 92 percent of its students passed the bar exam on their first try compared to a national average of 79.6 percent in 2019. It noted 33 percent of its students are placed in judicial clerkships.

Still, Koffman, a queer woman, said she would have a hard time recommending the school to many students: “There’s a lot of better places for people who aren’t cis straight white men.”

“It really appears that if you rock the boat even a tiny bit, you become a nuisance, an enemy of the administration,” she said. “But if you’re willing to maintain the status quo, you’re going to do just fine.”