IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — University of Northern Iowa leaders need to overhaul procedures for handling sexual misconduct complaints, a process mired in so much confusion that victims could be discouraged from stepping forward, according to an audit conducted for the school.

Students do not know how to report sexual assault and are given confusing information when they search it out. Investigations are handled inconsistently by different offices. And bureaucratic conflicts undermine the university's ability to have a uniform strategy for complying with Title IX, a federal law that requires universities to respond effectively to safety and discrimination complaints or risk sanctions and lawsuits.

Those were findings in an audit conducted by the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, obtained by The Associated Press through Iowa's public records law. They raise questions about whether UNI is doing enough to encourage reporting of sexual assault, help victims, investigate complaints and prevent problems from recurring.

"It pretty much indicts the university for having a top-to-bottom failure," said attorney Pressley Henningsen, who is representing a Davenport woman sexually assaulted by two UNI football players in 2004 and contends she dropped out after administrators treated her with animosity. "This is 100 percent what my client experienced."

But Leah Gutknecht, an assistant to UNI President Ben Allen responsible for compliance with Title IX, downplayed the findings of the audit, which cost the university $25,000 in fees. She said university officials "have a really strong record of victim services."

"The audit is a process to ask ourselves if we are covering everything we should and how can we do it better," she said.

She said she was still reviewing the report and planned to develop an action plan for implementing changes.

Gutknecht has said the audit was requested during a routine policy review and not because of Henningsen's client's lawsuit, which is seeking a court order requiring a similar review.

The report looked at whether the school's approach toward sexual harassment and violence complied with Title IX, which requires universities to investigate complaints and take action to eliminate a hostile environment for students.

The report said the school's top priority should be to appoint several deputy Title IX officers to Gutknecht to be responsible for compliance, train them to investigate complaints consistently and thoroughly, revise three key policies and publish its non-discrimination policy statement on university documents.

The report said UNI students, like others nationwide, don't know the details of policies until they need them. Yet, current procedures make it hard to find clear information.

UNI's website "is not user friendly regarding useful information about responding to sex/gender misconduct" and should be overhauled to provide information in a single place, the report said. A search for "sex misconduct" directs students to numerous sites and policies.

Online resources instruct victims to report to campus police, but students interviewed in a focus group said they would be unlikely to do that unless they were attacked by a stranger, the report said. Campus police do not publicize an officer who has special training in sexual violence and assault, but publish information "that, in places, conflicts with other institutional polices and misstates information" about options for confidential reporting.

"This ambiguity of the role of the campus police continues to generate hesitation to report because of the lack of knowledge of what happens when a report is made," according to the report. It added later: "We MUST provide a safe reporting structure for students that clearly outlines resources for confidential reporting and where to file a complaint."

One policy suggests that victims may have to go to several different offices to get action taken, which is misleading, the report found. Students also must consult two policies if they want to understand the procedures involved, "a chilling aspect of reporting."

Other findings included:

  • Students said that a mandatory video on sexual assault was stereotypical and should be changed "because they could not relate to the content" and ignored its message.
  • The university hired Gutknecht as its Title IX officer years ago, but "did not create or support a structure that enabled" her to oversee all related matters on campus. Other administrators are resistant to give up their authority and are confused by her role, while personality conflicts and ineffective channels of communication also hinder efforts.
  • The Office of Compliance and Equity Management is hampered by a perception that it treats those accused of misconduct "disrespectfully or even hostilely," and must improve its image by focusing on fairness for all involved.
  • Athletics department officials have not consistently attended annual training sessions, even though they are "particularly vulnerable" to legal challenges under the law.

Henningsen said he was stunned the university had so many problems eight years after his client's case, in which state lawyers have been recently criticized for digging deeply into the woman's personal life as they try to limit her damages.

"It's amazing to me they can get an independent review like this," he said, "yet she's still the one that is being blamed."

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