Feds probe sexual assault accusations against University of Montana football players

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Missoula is a long way from Happy Valley and few would confuse the Penn State Nittany Lions football team with the Griz at the University of Montana. But both universities have been wildly successful on the field in the past and both are starting their 2012 football seasons under a dark cloud.

While the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State is well documented, the University of Montana is also defending itself against allegations some officials looked the other way to protect their football program. The Department of Justice is investigating the university’s handling of sexual assault allegations, several made against football players.

“Sexual assault is a problem on campuses across the United States,” says Beth Hubble, co-director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Montana, “and it’s a problem here, too.”

Former running back Beau Donaldson just pleaded guilty to date rape, last year’s star quarterback Justin Johnson is awaiting trial on a charge of sexual assault and the handling of allegations of a gang rape by several football players apparently led to the firing of the head football coach and athletic director last March.

University of Montana president Royce Engstrom says the comparison to Penn State is unfair.

“I guess you could say both schools had some bad things happen, but that’s where the similarities end,” says Engstrom, “Penn State is in the situation they’re in because they spent years not addressing the situation, we took it head on from Day One.”

Engstrom points to a new policy requiring all students to view a tutorial on sexual assault. He will not discuss why he fired head football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day. The Griz football program has been a Division 1 Double A juggernaut, making the playoffs nearly every year over the past two decades.

The DOJ investigation goes beyond the University of Montana. It’s looking into the handling of hundreds of sexual assaults in Missoula over the past 3 years to see if there’s a pattern of discrimination against women.

Recent graduate Kerry Barrett says she and other women have been victimized twice. Barrett says she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance last year, and when she reported it to police she was asked if she had a boyfriend. Later, the police chief told her half of all rape reports are false, even though studies put the figure closer to 5 percent. The prosecutor never did file charges.

“They can’t be bothered,” says Barrett, “They don’t want to put in the extra effort to go through with a trial.”

County Prosecutor Fred Van Valkenberg says his office has always aggressively pursued sexual assault cases and is refusing to cooperate with a federal investigation, which he calls illegal. “I am totally unaware of any legitimate complaints that would indicate in any way that anybody in Missoula is discriminating against women,” says Van Valkenberg.

A lifelong Democrat who supported President Obama in 2008, Van Valkenberg is accusing the administration of playing politics.

“It seems to be tied in to the so-called war on women that is being waged at the presidential level,” says Van Valkenberg, “and I find that very disturbing.”

The Department of Justice will not comment on its ongoing investigation. It is not the only probe looking into sexual assault in Missoula. The Department of Education and NCAA also are investigating.