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Government says University of Montana agrees to reform rape handling

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - The University of Montana has agreed to reform how the school responds to rape accusations after a U.S. probe into complaints that such allegations were not appropriately handled, the U.S. departments of justice and education agencies said on Thursday.

The U.S. government investigated allegations that the university failed to aggressively pursue sexual assault and harassment reports, several of which involved football players.

"What is noteworthy about this announcement today is not the problems our investigation found at the University, but a shared commitment to the equality of women students and their safety," Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement.

"We have worked together to create and implement a blueprint for reform that can serve as a model for campuses across the nation to ensure that women's educational opportunities are not limited by sexual harassment or sexual assault," Austin said.

Rape allegations on and off campus have shaken Missoula, a city of 86,000 in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

In May, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would examine responses by local officials to 80 reported rapes over a three-year period. Weeks later, the Education Department opened an investigation into whether the school responded appropriately to at least 11 reported sexual assaults since 2010.

A former school football player, running back Beau Donaldson, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year after pleading guilty to raping a woman at his residence in 2010.

In March, a jury cleared former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson of raping another student while they watched a movie in her bedroom last February.

The agreements reached with the school outline a number of steps that the university must take, including revising its policies and investigative practices into allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

The university must also "take effective action to fully eliminate a hostile environment based on sex," improve training and work with an independent monitor to implement the reforms.

The university, which has cooperated with the probes, has pledged to ensure the safety of women on the 15,600-student campus. A training program on preventing sexual violence is now required for incoming students.

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang)

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