Jill Pilgrim
Jill Pilgrim, owner, Pilgrim & Associates.

Students, staff and others not only got an opportunity to quiz the lead investigator of a campus climate assessment on sexual violence recently, they also got to offer suggestions on how the University of New Mexico can better face this challenge.

University Counsel hired the law firm Pilgrim & Associates (P&A) last fall to conduct the review with its primary focus to be on student housing and athletics programs, following an anonymous complaint of an alleged sexual assault involving those areas. 

Jill Pilgrim, owner, and Rita Smith, one of the investigators who conducted interviews at UNM, presented the findings at a public forum, which also featured a question and answer session. In a 71-page report released by P&A, the review team found that many of UNM’s 17 policies regarding sexual assault are confusing and fail to comply with Title IX. Their recommendations and suggestions sweep across campus, pointing to policies, education, training, reporting and security.

But the review team also emphasized the responsibility for addressing the issue head on, doesn’t just fall on the university, it’s also up to students to change their culture.  

“How students interact - repeating information they don’t know to be true and sharing it on social media - further victimizes someone,” Pilgrim said. “Change how you communicate. Do not spread misinformation.”

“A number of victims aren’t sure they were assaulted. They need to talk to someone. They also need to look at the resources to get evidence collected. Without it, it is a difficult case. Forensic evidence can support the case. The victim can still take the time to decide whether or not to report it.” – Rita Smith

P&A determined that UNM takes seriously its obligation to safeguard students and staff from sexual violence - evident through student and staff training initiatives and the Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence. 

“UNM needs to remove obstacles that keep people from reporting incidents of sexual violence and improve policies and procedures,” she said. She added that staff needs to be informed and trained in their obligation to report incidents. A recommendation states that a distinction between which UNM staff are mandatory reporters and those who can maintain information as confidential needs to be a part of sexual violence training on campus. 

Smith said, “A number of victims aren’t sure they were assaulted. They need to talk to someone. They also need to look at the resources to get evidence collected. Without it, it is a difficult case. Forensic evidence can support the case. The victim can still take the time to decide whether or not to report it.”

Pilgrim made clear that both the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator need to have equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of their education. Hence, a fair and due process must be outlined and in place.

P&A reported that UNM students are aware of the issue of sexual violence and generally feel safe, but some issues were raised. Among them, is the need for improved security. At night, in particular, students reported feeling unsafe around the Duck Pond and Zimmerman Library, on Johnson Field and along Central Ave. A recommendation is that the UNM Police Department seek means of “improving visibility and effectiveness as a preventive measure.”

UNM as a commuter campus presents its own challenges. P&A suggests that UNM needs to “seek enhanced means of safeguarding the well-being of UNM students both on and off campus.” It is mandated by federal law. Smith suggested that the University work closely with the landlords and apartment building owners on the south side of Central. 

Off campus interactions come back to campus, Pilgrim said. “The effects of partying, including sexual violence, can come back to campus with lingering negative impacts on the campus. The alleged victim must know where to go.” She added that it’s important for students to know that they have access to on campus resources for an off campus assault.

The recommendations include the need for students to have sexual violence prevention education and training throughout their UNM career.

Students raised questions about how they can make a difference. Nathan claimed that the stigma and shame makes students uncomfortable about coming forth. Smith said, “Students can help one another starting by believing. Don’t question what you are hearing. It takes courage and energy for victims to share. Give the person information for where to go for assistance.”

Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre said that in 2014, the President’s Task Force on Sexual Violence was created. UNM created LoboRESPECT, or Respond, Educate, Support, Prevent, Empower, Consent and Train, UNM’s comprehensive approach to preventing and responding to sexual violence in the campus community. And a website was created to provide one place individuals could go for information and resources.

Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, vice president of Student Affairs, said that UNM has doubled the number of students living on campus in recent years. “We need to be more proactive. Cornell and Smith Plazas are areas of campus that are underutilized. With appropriate lighting and other amenities, we could hold events there that would keep the students on campus with things to do. We need to create venues for them to enjoy a safe campus in the evenings - complete with coffee shops and outdoor entertainment.”​