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MISSOULA, Montana — Kelsey Belnap’s love of football started early.
Some of her favorite childhood memories were attending games at the University of Montana, joining thousands of fans in cheering on the beloved Grizzlies. Her brother was a Griz, and Belnap spent a year working for the team.
When it came time to make a decision about college, the choice was clear.
“There was no other option for me,” she says. “I was going to live in Missoula, Montana.”
At the University of Montana, Belnap says, football is king. As a freshman, she embraced the culture, one of the first in line at the gates for every game.
Today Belnap hasn’t been to a single football game in more than four years. And it’s all because of what happened one night at the end of her first semester when, she says, four of the university’s football players raped her.
‘I pushed him away’
On a cold December night in 2010, Belnap and a friend went to a party at an off-campus apartment to celebrate the end of the semester.
She says that when she started feeling fuzzy, she stopped drinking. The next thing she remembers is being in a bedroom and hearing her friend having sex with her boyfriend.
“I have never been in a situation like that, and I tried to get up to move,” she says. “But I was so drunk at that point that I couldn't.”
That’s when, Belnap says, someone walked in.
‘He grabbed me by my jaw, and I blacked out after that. Until someone else came in the room.’
“There was a crotch in my face, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to,’ and I pushed him away,” she says. “He grabbed me by my jaw, and I blacked out after that. Until someone else came in the room.”
Before the night was over, Belnap says, four football players took turns raping her.
After what seemed like hours, Belnap got sick and called a friend to take her to the hospital. That’s when she started realizing what had happened and asked to speak to a police officer.
After reporting her rape to police, a rape kit examination was performed. At first, she says, she kept the incident to herself.
“I didn't trust anyone, and I was told not to talk to anyone about it. So I was afraid that if I did, it was going to get out and it was going to get back to the football players and it would have ruined the investigation,” she says. “The police were saying, ‘Keep hush-hush about it.’”
Nine weeks later, Belnap says the police informed her that because of insufficient evidence, they closed her case.
A ‘blueprint’ for the nation?
That could have been the end of Belnap’s case – if it weren’t for a string of sexual assault incidents involving Montana football players that came to light over the next several months. Community outrage, coupled with a low number of prosecutions, led to a 2012 Department of Justice investigation into not only how the university handles rape cases but also how local police and prosecutors act.
The university fired its football coach and athletic director.
Although the incident involving Belnap eventually led to the punishment of three of the players and the expulsion of another, no criminal charges were filed.
According to the DOJ findings released a year later, six University of Montana football players were accused of aiding, attempting or committing sexual assault from 2009 to 2012.
At around the same time, the university signed an agreement with the DOJ agreeing to policy changes, including training university employees in how to investigate and resolve reports of assault and conducting annual surveys of students.
The agency said that while the problems found at Montana “were real and significant,” they were not unique to that campus.
In a letter to the university, the DOJ said the agreement “will serve as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.”
Christine Fiore, a psychology professor at the University of Montana, says the "blueprint" label — and the intense media scrutiny that came with it — entails a balancing act.
She advises the school’s president on addressing sexual violence on campus and oversees the school’s mandatory climate survey on sexual assault. She says some staff members, including the president, feel that being considered the blueprint unfairly puts the university in the spotlight for what is really a national issue.
“But we are proud of what we've done, she says. “And we do feel like we have come together as a community to address this and take it on.”
A volunteer at the Student Advocacy Resource Center, which assists student victims of sexual assault, graduate student Marina Costanzo can see the positive effects of the policy changes.
“We’re seeing that survivors are feeling like it’s more comfortable to report,” she says.
Since the DOJ agreement, there have been 22 reports of sexual assault at the University of Montana, including four rapes, according to the school. One student has been expelled, and four formal investigations are ongoing.
It’s a big step forward, but Costanzo says it’s still not enough. “Until we address the broader rape culture and sexual assault culture that we have in America, we’re not going to see differences in their attitudes,” she says.
As the DOJ investigation found, the problems in Missoula went beyond the university.
New policies for Missoula
After Belnap reported her case to the police, the county attorney’s office, led by Fred Van Valkenburg, who has since retired, said it closed the case because it couldn’t prove the sex was nonconsensual.
According to Montana law, a victim who is incapacitated is incapable of consent. Belnap says that even though her blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, authorities told her that because she was moaning, she wasn’t incapacitated.
“There’s no black and white definition of what ‘incapacitated’ means,” says Kirsten Pabst, who served as Van Valkenburg’s chief deputy from 2006 to 2012 before taking over as county attorney in June 2014. “But it’s a high standard, and it's really difficult when you're dealing with a situation that’s fueled by drugs or alcohol.”
She says that some allegations made by the DOJ and the media against the county attorney’s office were inaccurate and sensational. But she also admits that there were some things they could have done better.
‘There’s no black and white definition of what ‘incapacitated’ means.’
Missoula County attorney
The DOJ report found that even when sexual assault cases were referred for prosecution, they rarely led to charges, with Van Valkenburg pursuing charges in only 14 out of 85 referred sexual assault reports.
The report said that the county attorney’s office disregarded sexual assault incidents to the point of putting “women in Missoula at increased risk of harm.”
Despite Van Valkenburg’s resistance, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office finally signed an agreement with the DOJ more than a year after the initial report. The agreement aimed to strengthen Missoula County’s prosecution of sexual assaults by adding positions and providing sexual assault training for prosecutors.
Belnap says she’s glad changes are being made in the county attorney’s office, but she no longer trusts the authorities she thought would protect her. She says she still loves Missoula but realizes that at least some parts of the community’s perspective and thoughts toward the football team in regard to these issues haven’t changed much.
“People still think that the football players are just the greatest or the athletes are just the greatest people out there and that they can do no wrong,” she says.
Justice hasn’t been served yet, Belnap says, but she hopes the changes brought about by her case will inspire other victims.
“I want people to feel like there is a change and that they do need to come forward,” she says. “The more people that come forward, the stronger we can make this case.”