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Maylinn Smith: ‘I am increasingly troubled by the current direction the law school is headed’

Oct 5, 2021
BY:  - OCTOBER 4, 2021 8:47 PM

 Some students from the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law are questioning a report by a private firm the university hired to investigate allegations including retaliation and sexual assault. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)


A prominent Montana lawyer and former longtime faculty member at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana had raised concerns about its leadership in 2019 in a pointed six-page letter declining an offer to stay on board.

Maylinn Smith, then co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic, told Dean Paul Kirgis in the Feb. 2019 letter she planned to depart given his administration’s lack of support for Indian law and clinical programs, inability to harness the strengths of the school, and lack of vision for progressive programs.

“I am … troubled by the current direction the law school is headed,” Smith wrote. “Supporting an administration that vigorously advocates and promotes diversity and excellence in connection with the law school’s mission statement and strategic plan, thereby strengthening the unique educational experiences in this law school, would be an endeavor for which I might stay.”

In the letter, Smith noted she left a tenure track position at the law school six years earlier after working there since 1994, but she had agreed to stay to teach in the Indian law program. Failed searches meant she was again asked to stay “to maintain the quality of the Indian law program.”

“I have always loved working with the students, found working with the tribes rewarding, and enjoyed working with my very talented, amazingly smart and dedicated colleagues,” Smith wrote. “With the right leadership, this law school could be a progressive and innovative institution.”

Smith, currently chair of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, declined to comment for this story. The Daily Montanan obtained Smith’s letter following news that students planned a walkout Tuesday after hearing, among other problems, that Kirgis and associate dean of students Sally Weaver ignored reports of a sexual predator and mishandled sexual assault allegations.

One week ago, the Daily Montanan published a story that said Kirgis and Weaver both discouraged students from taking sexual assault and harassment allegations to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles such complaints on campus. Kirgis and Weaver have both denied interfering with students’ reports.

In advance of the walkout, “concerned students” sent a letter Thursday to administrators asking them to take seriously their complaints, including sexual violence. Kirgis responded in an email Friday to the Blewett School of Law community where he said media reports made him realize shortcomings, and he apologized that especially female students did not feel they could safely raise issues at the law school.

The response from the dean prompted sharp reactions from current and former students. Jennifer Robichaud, a third-year student who has appealed a retaliation complaint against both Kirgis and Weaver, said in a Facebook post that she was calling “bulls—” on the dean’s response. Kirgis started working at UM in 2015.

“Oh, the *media reports* made him realize!” Robichaud wrote. “The multiple women reporting this to him again and again over the last year and a half didn’t quite do it for him.

“He was still unclear after an 11-month Title IX investigation. The dean wants to pretend he didn’t elevate the student at the center of the allegations to the detriment of the survivors. He wants to pretend he didn’t know. I call bulls—. He’s caught and this is damage control.”

In spring 2020, Robichaud told Kirgis a friend had been sexually assaulted by a fellow law school student; the dean told her he would take the matter to Title IX, but the Title IX director later informed Robichaud that Kirgis never stated “sexual assault” when talking about the incident, Robichaud earlier told the Daily Montanan. Kirgis said he passed on the incident to the best of his “understanding and recollection.” The Title IX director earlier declined to comment through a university spokesperson, citing the complaint is part of an open investigation.

The complaint Robichaud filed is part of a series of complaints UM hired a private firm to investigate in July 2020. Roughly one month ago, students started planning a walkout in part to show support to students, staff and faculty who are survivors of sexual assault.

Last week, the Daily Montanan published a series of stories about the allegations and ensuing investigation that took roughly 11 months, and since then, at least a couple of national law publications also have posted stories, including Above the Law last week and Monday, the ABA Journal of the American Bar Association.

“He could have acted many, many times over the last year and a half,” Robichaud said of Kirgis in her post. “He did not. Instead, he denied the culture of silencing and retaliation. Now that these issues have gained national attention, he wants to paint himself as a champion of women and survivors? I am disgusted.

“The thing is, I’ve heard these pretty words before. And yet, here we are.”

Another woman who had taken a sexual assault allegation to Weaver said she became “furious” at reading Kirgis’ response to the letter of concern. She earlier told the Daily Montanan the associate dean informed her a report to the Title IX office would not be necessary. Weaver denied she ever deterred a student from going to Title IX.

“I personally paid close to $100,000 to go to a school where I was sexually assaulted and then bullied and threatened when I attempted to report what I saw as a violent threat to myself and all of my female classmates,” said the woman; the Daily Montanan does not identify survivors of sexual assault without their consent and has not identified women who came forward with allegations for these stories. “As I read the email, I became furious. I will end up paying over $100,000 including interest for a sub-par education and a lifetime of trauma. Yet the school is willing to pay ANOTHER independent organization to help them clean up their ways. In reality, us survivors can tell them how to improve for free.

“All the law school needs is a few leaders with an average moral compass and the willingness to use some degree of common sense. Simply put, a moral compass and common sense would have led them to realize 1) it is statistically nearly impossible so many women accused the same man out of pure spite when false sexual assault allegations are rare, and 2) it is more important to follow protocol than blame victims.

“I personally feel money would be better spent paying for victims like me to not have the financial burden of paying for my ride through hell. Yet the law school is going to pay for another biased opinion to tell them they were morally bankrupt and lacked common sense.”

The issues Smith brought forward in her 2019 letter declining the offer from Kirgis are separate from the ones students are bringing to light. However, Smith, students and recent alumna all raised serious leadership questions of the law school, and students in particular have said administrators are ruining the reputation of students and faculty of the law school.

In her letter, Smith noted insufficient funding for Indian law and clinical programs, ignoring of the law school’s strategic plan, bypassing opportunities to contribute to social justice reform “on a broad scale,” and a lack of willingness to meaningfully collaborate with Salish Kootenai College in creating law school classes.

“An administration capable of demonstrating support for faculty, students and educational programs through innovation, transparency, robust fundraising, and a meaningful collaborative decision-making process, which appreciates the faculty-governance structure, benefits the law school and the university,” Smith wrote. “This in turn creates a supportive work environment. Unfortunately, I have not experienced this type of leadership for several years now.”


In an email, Kirgis said he had discussed continued employment with Smith. He said he increased the offer Smith had declined from $70,000 to $90,000, but he did not receive a response. He provided a PDF document with a series of emails between him and Smith, with the final email formatted differently. In response to a question about the PDF, Kirgis sent what he described as the “native email chain.”

Smith declined an interview with the Daily Montanan. Her letter said Kirgis had described his offer of $70,000 as “generous,” and she said in the letter she asserted no confidentiality over its contents.

In the letter, Smith said she was passionate about work that benefits Indian people and Indian Country, and she wanted to address diversity, bias and social justice and be of service to tribes and Indian people. She said she had wanted to do that work at UM.

“Unfortunately, my hopes of using this passion for developing innovative clinical and Indian law programs at the law school for the benefit of students, Tribes and the community as a whole have been met with a general lack of support or even interest by the administration,” Smith wrote.

In addition to her work with the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, Smith is a civil prosecutor for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, vice chair of the board of the Montana Innocence Project, and has served as a tribal appellate court justice and lower court judge.


Sept 4, 2021
 - OCTOBER 3, 2021 9:45 AM

 (Provided by Pexels.com.)


NorthWestern Energy backed out of its request for regulatory approval of a new $250 million gas-fired plant in Laurel only after other parties had spent considerable time and money evaluating the project, according to documents filed with the Montana Public Service Commission.

Therefore, the utility monopoly should reimburse taxpayers and intervenors for those costs, argued the NW Energy Coalition and Renewable Northwest.

“NWEC/RNW invested resources in this docket with the expectation that it would have an opportunity to participate, evaluate, and share with the Commission and the public its assessment of Northwestern’s Application,” the parties wrote in their response. “Other intervenors doubtless entered this docket with similar expectations.

“NorthWestern has now, at this late stage in the proceeding, deprived intervenors, the Commission, and the public of that opportunity twice in 14 months … NorthWestern should not be permitted to repeatedly abuse the preapproval process at the expense and to the detriment of the public. Such behavior will ultimately have a chilling effect on public engagement in future proceedings.”

NorthWestern disagrees that it should pay, and it has asked regulators to close the docket.

Last week, NorthWestern announced that it planned to skip the Public Service Commission’s review of the Laurel Generating Station. Instead, the utility said it would move ahead without preapproval at an accelerated pace and try to save money because of rising costs in the construction market.

Numerous parties already had intervened in the docket and were preparing to comment on the deal.

In subsequent filings, several organizations said they did not oppose NorthWestern’s withdrawal, and they acknowledged the utility did not legally need a green light from the PSC to move ahead. However, they also said they do not want NorthWestern’s decision to “foist additional cost and risk on customers.”

“We have significant concern that customers could be forced to bear such cost and risk if NorthWestern proceeds to construct the Laurel Generating Station (‘LGS’) and, in the context of a future rate case, asserts that the Commission must include LGS costs in customer rates to preserve the company’s credit worthiness regardless of whether the evidence demonstrates that the LGS is the most cost-effective resource for meeting NorthWestern’s capacity need,” said the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club in their filing. “To ensure customers are protected, this Commission’s disposition on NorthWestern’s motion and notice should be clear that the Commission will closely evaluate both the cost and need for the LGS before including the plant in customer rates.

“If NorthWestern chooses to incur the high costs of building the LGS without prior Commission scrutiny, the Commission should be clear that the company does so at its own financial peril.” 

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Human Resource Council, District XI, said the reason NorthWestern withdrew needs to be clear, as does the timing of its decision. The parties also have “significant concerns” over the analysis the utility used in choosing to build the Laurel plant, and they said the PSC could accept NorthWestern’s withdrawal but should still require answers.

“Such an understanding will provide much needed context for evaluating whether the Laurel Generating Station should be included in NorthWestern’s portfolio, if and when the company makes such a request,” said the NRDC and HRC in their filing. “Nor should an awareness of the events that triggered NorthWestern’s decision wait until it files for inclusion of the Laurel Generating Station in rates. At that point the Commission may have to decide between authorizing customer payment for a risky, expensive plant, which it might not have granted pre-approval, and risking the credit worthiness of the utility. Now is the time, when events are recent, to obtain an explanation.”

NorthWestern, however, asked the PSC to consider the requests from other parties moot for the time being.

“Since NorthWestern withdrew its application, there is no applicant; there is no testimony; there is no evidentiary record,” NorthWestern said. “Consequently, the Commission must reject the claims the intervenors present in their pleadings as premature and factually unsubstantiated. The Commission will have a complete evidentiary record to consider when, in the future, NorthWestern requests approval. Until the Commission is presented with an application and develops an evidentiary record, it must refrain from addressing premature and unsubstantiated claims.”


Sept 28, 2021 

Grand River Solutions timelines, process scrutinized by students, experts



 SEPTEMBER 28, 2021 - Female law students and alumna of the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law are calling into question a report from an outside firm that investigated a series of allegations related to the law school, including that two of its top leaders discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults. One student is appealing the outcome.

The university hired Grand River Solutions in July 2020 to investigate complaints related to the law school including a sexual assault allegation by a student, the Daily Montanan earlier reported. The California firm, which UM said was paid $73,496 for its work, describes its specialty in part as providing Title IX, equity and Clery Act support services to institutions of higher education.

A UM spokesperson described reasons the campus brings on outside companies for investigations: “On occasion, UM hires outside professional independent contractors to work on particular matters for a variety of reasons. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX utilizes this policy in instances such as staffing needs due to volume of work or avoiding a potential conflict of interest.”

UM said it hired Grand River Solutions in particular because it is familiar with UM policy and state law and “because of their reputation as being regional experts on matters related to Title IX,” a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by institutions that receive federal funds. The 2020 contract followed a 2019 diversity audit by Grand River for which UM paid $4,100, according to the campus.

But the students interviewed by the Daily Montanan said the Grand River Solutions investigators breached confidentiality, withheld statements that could have been rebutted, did not follow through on scheduled interviews and didn’t follow up on evidence presented to them.

The women said they were concerned that it took Grand River Solutions nearly 11 months to present its findings to UM, although UM’s Title IX office says it aims to conduct investigations within 60 days.

Grand River Solutions directed questions from the Daily Montanan to the compliance officer with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. The Commissioner’s Office did not respond to the questions.

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said cases differ, and depending on the circumstances, 11 months can be considered a timely response. The case involved multiple complainants with multiple allegations, as well as multiple respondents.

“UM is committed to conducting investigations in a prompt, thorough, and fair manner,” Kuntz said in a statement. “In each investigation, the amount of time needed varies and each case depends on the nature of available information.”

The university does not release Title IX investigation reports in order to protect student privacy.

John Clune, recognized as a top lawyer in the country defending survivors of assault and harassment, agreed that while it’s a good goal, 60 days to complete an investigation might be an ambitious timeline. He said it’s not uncommon for schools to need more time and flexibility given scheduling conflicts and other reasonable factors, such as tracking down witnesses.

“Eleven months is too long,” said Clune, who is based in Boulder, Colorado, with Hutchinson, Black and Cook. “When you’re looking at an investigation into sexual abuse that takes 11 months, you’ll be lucky if the reporting party, the complainant, is still a student at your school by the end of the 11 months. It is so difficult for survivors of sexual abuse to continue to go to school.”

Clune was not involved in the UM investigation but answered questions about the proceedings from the Daily Montanan. He said campus grievance procedures should spell out timelines and deadlines for resolution, schools or contracted firms should follow them, and complainants and respondents should be apprised of delays.

Jennifer Robichaud, who is in her final year of law school, is among those whose complaints against the school were investigated by Grand River. She filed her complaint in fall 2020 alleging in part retaliation by the dean and associate dean of students for interfering with and discouraging reports to the Title IX office. She said a series of incidents, including sexual assault allegations, left her feeling student safety was compromised and law school administrators were not adequately responsive.

In the course of Grand River’s investigation, Robichaud said she was not afforded the opportunity to review a statement the associate dean of students provided to investigators to address omissions or provide relevant facts; she received the statement only after appealing Grand River’s findings. Emails she provided to the Daily Montanan from the university verified she did not receive the material until after Grand River concluded its investigation. She said she also repeatedly asked for a timeline but never received one.

Robichaud appealed the findings; the appeal is pending at UM. She also plans to pursue her case with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and with the Montana Human Rights Bureau. She declined to discuss whether she would pursue litigation.

UM said all parties were apprised of the timeline and kept informed: “Everyone involved is encouraged regularly to reach out to seek updates when needed.” However, neither UM nor Grand River demonstrated they provided parties with notices of delay when asked by the Daily Montanan for verification.

“There’s this understanding that things need to move as quickly as they can because you run the risk of a student having to forgo their education, which is exactly what Title IX is supposed to try to prevent,” Clune said.

He also said Grand River erred in not sharing all the information with Robichaud and should have acknowledged as much to her. He said it’s possible that doing so would not have changed the outcome of the investigation, but a complainant needs the chance to provide impeaching information if she has it.

“Both sides should get everything the other side submitted,” Clune said. “This whole thing comes down to a credibility determination on one side or the other.” 

Robichaud is not alone in her concerns about Grand River’s investigation.

A Missoula woman, who confided a rape and sexual assault to Robichaud and told the Daily Montanan she did not report the assaults against her at the time they occurred because she did not believe she had proof that would satisfy law enforcement, said her confidentiality was breached when investigators shared her name with another witness. She said she learned of the breach from that witness. She provided the Daily Montanan a letter her lawyer wrote to Grand River advising the team to stop sharing her name with others and cease contact with her.

Another law student called as a witness shared a chain of emails that showed Grand River had reached out to her in November 2020 and requested her testimony. She followed up the same month to reschedule a meeting, but Grand River did not reschedule with her, and when she followed up in May 2021, Grand River said the fact-finding had concluded.

Another woman, who told the Daily Montanan she had been raped but had never reported it, said she was interviewed by the Grand River investigators but felt they were not listening: “Midway through the interview, I realized it was bulls—. I could tell they weren’t taking it seriously.” She said she was told by one of the complainants the investigators didn’t use any of the information she provided about her own assault by the same law school student in their findings.

Clune said schools have an ongoing struggle over how to deal with separate allegations by the same suspect that emerge in their investigations. Montana isn’t alone in the field of schools that don’t use that kind of information, he said, in part because offenders are suing, some on a regular basis.

“I don’t agree with the practice, but it’s not uncommon,” he said.

Bre Koffman, a third-year law student, said the investigators met with her multiple times, and she provided them emails and names of other people who could corroborate information, but Grand River didn’t follow up: “​​It was just the biggest waste of my time.”


Female students describe ‘boys’ club,’ administrators dispute the claim

BY:  - SEPTEMBER 27, 2021 11:32 AM

 Enrollment at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law is about 248 students, which is roughly half female. (Keila Szpaller/Daily Montanan)

This is Part 1 of two stories focusing on complaints of sexual assault and harassment at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. Today’s story focuses on the law school administration’s response. Since May, the Daily Montanan has spoken with 13 current or former law school students about the climate at the law school. 

Three women from the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law say the dean and associate dean of students deterred them from taking allegations of sexual harassment and assault to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, which handles sexual misconduct on campus.

A fourth female law student told the Daily Montanan she did not report a rape because she learned of the difficulties other students faced. However, when she told a professor she could not be in a group with one particular male student, she said she received a call from Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver asking why.

“I know that you know there are problems with him,” the student said she told Weaver. “And you can just count on that for why I don’t want to be in a group with him. She kept saying, ‘You’re going to have to work with people you don’t like.’ I kept saying, ‘It’s not that I just don’t like him.’”

The Daily Montanan grants anonymity to survivors of sexual assault and is not naming women who have made sexual assault allegations or who otherwise fear retaliation in their legal careers. They are among 13 current or former law school students the Daily Montanan spoke with over the past four months who said law school leadership falls far short in its support of female students. The students and lawyers don’t represent a majority of the law school enrollment of some 248, which is roughly half female, but each shared or confirmed troubling accounts about their time there.

 Paul Kirgis is dean of the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Provided by the University of Montana.)


Students said they waited months for problems they raised with Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean of Students Weaver to be resolved, feared retaliation for raising concerns, and struggled academically from the accompanying stress despite being top performers in their academic careers. Some walked in the door joyful to pursue their dream careers but walked out disillusioned about being lawyers. Some left before earning degrees.

The students’ stories come at a time the university faces separate allegations of gender discrimination by four women, one current and three former high ranking employees, in a federal case filed last month. At least 18 additional women have raised similar discrimination allegations, according to an amended complaint requesting class action status for the female employees. UM has described the claims as “baseless and without merit.”

Weaver and Kirgis both declined in-person interviews with the Daily Montanan but responded in writing to questions about incidents students discussed. UM confirmed Kirgis and Weaver both are mandatory reporters by campus policy, required to report possible sexual misconduct involving students to the Title IX office within 24 hours “in order to enable UM to respond effectively.”

 Sally Weaver is associate dean of students at the UM Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Provided by the University of Montana.)


Title IX is a portion of a federal education law that prohibits discrimination or harassment based on sex by any institution that receives money from the federal government.

In emailed responses, Weaver said she has never dissuaded any student from filing a Title IX complaint, and she said trauma survivors often have difficulty accurately reporting their experiences. 

Kirgis defended the law school: “The School of Law has and continues to accurately educate all employees and students about their rights and responsibilities under UM’s Title IX policy and procedures, including the mandatory reporting policy.”

Investigation completed, findings appealed

The students’ allegations are related to a series of complaints investigated by a private firm last school year. In July 2020, UM hired Grand River Solutions, which describes its specialty in part as providing Title IX support services to institutions of higher education, to investigate multiple allegations by women in the law school.

One law school student has been at the center of the women’s complaints: Jacob Elder of Helena.

The Daily Montanan previously reported Grand River Solutions investigated Elder, a Missoula mayoral candidate, on an allegation of sexual assault. Elder has not been charged with any related crimes, and UM investigations are not criminal proceedings.

 Jacob Elder is a law student at UM and mayoral candidate for Missoula. In May, he maintained his innocence to the Daily Montanan of a sexual assault allegation. He declined to comment for this story. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)


Elder, a Grizzlies redshirt at UM in 2011, maintained his innocence in a May 5 call with the Daily Montanan. At the time, Elder said the university already had informed him that he had not violated the student conduct code, but then UM hired a private firm to investigate the same matter.  In a social media post in June, Elder said the outside investigation “exonerated” him. He declined to provide documentation to the Daily Montanan or identify who at UM had told him that he had not violated the student conduct code prior to the Grand River investigation.

A source familiar with the investigation confirmed that the Title IX office did not make any rulings or inform any parties of any findings until after Grand River had completed its work with UM in June 2021.

In the municipal primary election Sept. 14, Elder advanced in his bid for mayor, and his name and that of incumbent Mayor John Engen will appear on the Nov. 2 all mail general election ballot.

The Grand River Solutions’ investigation also looked into allegations that Kirgis and Weaver, two of the top law school leaders, discouraged and intimidated students from taking complaints, including sexual assault allegations, to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX, according to documents obtained by the Daily Montanan.

UM confirmed in June that Grand River delivered the investigation report or reports it was hired to produce but could not publicly discuss the findings. However, UM noted any party dissatisfied with the outcome could file an appeal, and UM confirmed this month the results of the investigation remain under appeal.

 Jennifer Robichaud, a law student and former nurse, alleged retaliation by the law school dean and associate dean of students. (Courtesy photo.)


Jennifer Robichaud, a law student and former nurse who alleged retaliation in one of complaints that was part of the Grand River investigation, confirmed she appealed the firm’s findings. In her complaint, she alleged administrators intimidated her from going to the Title IX office to report a sexual assault against her friend and an unrelated potential violation from an incident in class. 

Robichaud said the law school should be setting the standard high for the way the campus handles reports of sexual misconduct and retaliation: “The law school should be above reproach.” 

But she said trying to understand how to handle Title IX issues at the law school was daunting. Students are studying 60 hours a week, many don’t understand their rights under Title IX, and they look up to the faculty, including the dean and associate dean of students, she said. UM tapped Kirgis to serve as acting provost from April 2018 through July 2018, making him the chief academic officer of the university in that period.

“These are lawyers,” Robichaud said. “The power disparity is huge, and it’s exploited. I just wish I would have known.”

Acknowledging student fears

The problems the firm investigated had started by fall 2019, and the situation that unfolded the following semesters left these female law students and others feeling vulnerable in classes, unsure about whether to report possible Title IX violations or how to do so, and fearing the dean of the law school would not sign off on their character and fitness, an American Bar Association requirement for admission to the bar.

UM: Paul Kirgis former ‘Professor of the Year’ in New York

Dean Paul Kirgis is widely published, including in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, according to his biography on the University of Montana website. While at UM, Kirgis served as interim provost from April 2018 through July 2018. Before coming to UM in 2015, he taught at St. John’s University School of Law in New York City.

“For his work building the dispute resolution program, he was awarded the Faculty Outstanding Achievement Medal by St. John’s University,” according to his biography. “He was twice voted Professor of the Year by the St. John’s students.”

A September 2020 memo from Kirgis, Weaver and Title IX Director Alicia Arant to two law students acknowledged the students’ concerns and outlined steps the administrators would take in response.

“We appreciate you raising concerns about the avenues for reporting discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking and retaliation to University Officials in order to receive appropriate responses without the fear of retaliation,” said the memo. “We apologize on behalf of the University that existing processes have caused you to feel distressed and dissatisfied.”

Additionally, the memo acknowledged the students feared repercussions in their applications to the bar: “We want to ensure that any perception that the dean or a faculty member or anyone else can simply refuse to certify a student’s character and fitness based on a subjective dislike of the student is dispelled. Details about the objective criteria that are considered will be provided.”

In his email to the Daily Montanan, Kirgis said the memo outlined existing practices. In her emailed response, Weaver said the document reflected the law school’s commitment to address student concerns: “The memo was not an admission of any wrongdoing but rather a collective acknowledgement of best practices.”

Blocked from Title IX? 

Robichaud and five other female law students, whom the Daily Montanan is not identifying, shared four separate instances where they said the dean or associate dean of students directly or indirectly discouraged them from taking complaints to the Title IX office or interfered with their ability to do so.

They were:

  • One woman told Weaver that her friend who was a fellow law student had been sexually assaulted by Elder, and she said Weaver told her the law school would handle the incident in-house. She said Weaver later threatened to report her and her friend to the bar association for being vindictive if they didn’t drop the matter. She said she felt ill after convincing her friend a report to Title IX was not warranted.
  • The friend also told Weaver in early 2020 that she was sexually assaulted by Elder, and Weaver told her she had the training and authority to evaluate such issues herself, the student told the Daily Montanan. She said the associate dean told her a report to the Title IX office would be “unnecessary.”
  • In spring 2020, Robichaud said she told Kirgis that Elder sexually assaulted her friend, who had received the phone call from Weaver. Kirgis told Robichaud he did not believe the incident required a report to the Title IX office, which handles sexual misconduct on campus; nonetheless, he said he would inform Title IX, Robichaud recalled. When the Title IX director contacted her, Robichaud said the director said the dean had not mentioned the phrase “sexual assault” in his call. (See sidebar at bottom of story.)
  • Robichaud and three other students also said they took a classroom management problem to Weaver on separate occasions, and they said she advised them a report to the Title IX office would inhibit the law school’s ability to address the matter. The students told the Daily Montanan a professor repeated slurs for gay people, allowed the class to do the same, and mocked child sexual abuse. (See sidebar at bottom of story.)
 A Toni Morrison quote is displayed outside a faculty member’s office at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan.)


In an email, Weaver said the only time she ever received a complaint of sexual misconduct by another student, she reported it to campus authorities; she said the student had no interest in filing a formal complaint with Title IX but was not dissuaded from doing so.

She also said she never threatened a student: “I have thought long and hard about anything I might have said that a student could have heard in this way, and it simply did not happen.

“I have been trained in and worked in areas of trauma-informed counseling. I know that survivors who have experienced trauma often find it challenging to process information and accurately report their experiences and perceptions.

“I have been trained to go slowly, to allow survivors to exercise as much control over the situation as possible, to repeatedly test understanding. If I fell short in my obligations to these students in the areas of trauma informed counseling, I suspect it was because I went too fast, used terms and concepts that I erroneously assumed they would understand, and failed to test their understanding. Lessons learned.”

In response to the complaints about the professor, Weaver said she personally reported the concerns on the day she received them to both the Title IX office and UM’s general counsel: “We followed their recommendations with respect to the conduct of the investigation and the actions that were taken in response.”

In an email to the Daily Montanan, Kirgis said he reported the matter Robichaud shared with him “to the best of my understanding and recollection.” Through a UM spokesperson, the Title IX office declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

Cierra Anderson, who graduated from the law school last school year, started a support group in fall 2019 for students who were survivors of domestic and sexual violence after seeing a lack of support at the law school.

Students confided in her, she said, and after three or four students told her they couldn’t go to the Title IX office because it would impact their character and fitness application to the bar, Anderson got her first inkling students were not getting correct information.

“When you have issues at the law school, you report to the associate dean or the dean himself,” Anderson said. “And Dean Kirgis and Dean Weaver were the people that predominantly people told me they went to. I wasn’t there for those specific conversations. I just know they came to me afterwards.”

UM has conducted 15 mandatory reporter trainings in the last 12 months, the campus said. The university confirmed that all employees who are not bound by confidentiality, such as therapists at Curry Health or advocates at the Student Advocacy Resource Center, must take suspected sexual misconduct to the Title IX office within 24 hours. UM noted students also need to take mandatory reporter training.

To report or not to report?

The woman who received the phone call from Weaver and confided in Robichaud told the Daily Montanan she decided not to take a rape and sexual assault report to law school administrators or the Title IX office because of threats other students faced in their attempts to do so. She first provided an anonymous letter to the Daily Montanan and later agreed to an interview.

“I thought I might report the incident,” the student wrote in the letter. “Yet my fear held me back after a friend told me about her friend who encountered a similar experience with Jacob and made a report to the University of Montana’s dean of students at the law school. The woman was told by the law school administration that she didn’t have proof of what happened and if she ‘continued to harass’ Jacob (Elder), it would reflect negatively on her Character and Fitness application for admission to the State Bar.”

Elder, who has not been charged with any crimes, maintained his innocence to the Daily Montanan in the May 5 phone call and later on social media. Elder did not respond to either a Sept. 10 email requesting an interview or message sent on his campaign website. When reached by phone Sept. 13, Elder said he had shared the Daily Montanan’s message with his lawyer. However, he declined to answer questions for this story. He did not respond to a Sept. 26 email or message to his campaign website requesting comment on the allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Friday, UM confirmed Elder remains enrolled at the School of Law.

The woman also said at the law school, race plays a role in the dynamics. In the letter, she said that Elder, a Black man from Liberia, told her that if she told anyone he had raped her, “he would make it known that I was just a ‘small-town, sheltered racist white girl.’” In the meantime, she said the law school has propped him up in its media outreach.

In an interview, the student described two alleged sexual assaults by Elder, one a rape and the other repeated groping at a downtown bar. She said she did not report either of the assaults from fall 2019 to the police either.

“What stopped me?’’ she asked. “It was really the fact that I was so traumatized that I could not pull the pieces of what had happened myself, and I couldn’t. I could not. There were so many times that I sat my boyfriend down to chat or one of my best friends down to chat, and I just didn’t tell them. So many times. Until I went to see a therapist and I started working on unfolding everything that had happened.”

She also said she was acutely aware that she had no physical proof and worried the Title IX office wouldn’t move forward without such evidence. That fear was reinforced by a conversation with a law student in another class, she said. “She had almost warned me there was a male student in my class who had done something to her friend that wasn’t very nice. She was like, just watch yourself. Be conscientious … I instantly asked her if it was Jacob. She said yes. And then she went into the story and told me her friend had brought this to the law school, and they didn’t do anything because she didn’t have any proof.

“I’m sitting there thinking to myself, why the hell would I do the same thing and have the same results? History repeats itself. I didn’t have any proof. I didn’t have a rape kit done. I didn’t make a police report. I had nothing. I had some witnesses at the Oxford (bar), but as far as me trying to prove to them that something happened, I didn’t have anything. I don’t have anything besides the trauma that I carry with me.”


It is in the University’s interest to encourage students to report sexual harassment early, before such conduct becomes severe or pervasive, so that it can take steps to prevent the harassment from creating a hostile environment.

– U.S. Department of Justice in May 2013

Anderson, who had started the survivors support group, said people came to her with concerns about Elder. She said she warned members of the group to be careful with him; she could not share information other students discussed in the group, citing its confidential nature.

“There were definitely safety concerns that were communicated to me, which is unfortunate,” Anderson said of students outside the group. “And I know being a woman in law is really difficult, but being a woman in the law school, especially if you’re a survivor, it’s kind of difficult.”

A community history of sexual assault

In Missoula, law students in particular are aware of the community’s history with sexual assault, including the 2013 trial that acquitted Grizzlies football star Jordan Johnson of sexual intercourse without consent.

A year earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into UM for its failure to properly handle complaints of sexual assault, including rape. The sexual assault scandal was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book about campus rape, called “Missoula.”

Leading up to the federal probe, UM had hired a former Montana Supreme Court justice to review allegations two students were gang-raped, and that investigation grew to include nine sexual assault allegations from September 2010 to December 2011, plus two added later, according to reporting by the Missoulian. The former justice determined UM had “a problem with sexual assault on and off campus” and needed to take steps to “insure the safety of all students as well as faculty, staff and guests.”

The Department of Justice investigation that followed examined responses to sexual assault by not just UM but by city police and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. Agencies in Missoula signed agreements with the DOJ as a result.

Sally Weaver lauded as feminist advocate

Sally Weaver is associate dean of students and director of academic success at the UM Alexander Blewett III School of Law. Weaver was a partner at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer and Murphy, an Atlanta firm where she worked for 12 years, according to her LinkedIn profile. A 2004 Atlanta Business Chronicle story announcing her role as CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation said she had worked on issues of critical importance to women and girls and served as a rape crisis and domestic violence counselor.

In an email, Weaver further described her career: “For 50 years I have devoted substantial pro bono and philanthropic resources to protecting and advocating for the rights of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQI people. I have served on and chaired boards of directors for multiple organizations that serve the needs of women, children, and families. It has been my life’s work both prior to and during my tenure at the Law School.”

The May 2013 findings said UM had made headway in reform but had not done enough to “fully eliminate a sexually hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” The flagship was tasked with revising policies and procedures to “encourage students to report sexual assault” and prohibit retaliation.

“It is in the University’s interest to encourage students to report sexual harassment early, before such conduct becomes severe or pervasive, so that it can take steps to prevent the harassment from creating a hostile environment,” the letter said.

UM agreed to instate lawful practices to comply with Title IX and avoid litigation, and the letter from federal authorities to then UM President Royce Engstrom and legal counsel Lucy France thanked the university for being cooperative in the investigation. The letter said the agreement would “serve as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.”

In the aftermath of the investigations, UM officials touted the status.

But five years later in a separate action in 2018, the U.S. Department of Education fined the campus nearly $1 million for reporting “inaccurate and misleading” crime statistics from 2012 to 2015. For example, federal authorities said UM had omitted 18 crimes, including a “forcible sexual offense” in 2013. 

The Jeanne Clery Act requires campuses that receive federal funds to report crime statistics so the public can assess campus safety, and the Education Department said people must be able to rely on data the university provides.

UM negotiated the fine down to $395,000 and paid it off in 2020.

John Clune, a lawyer described by the Washington Post as “one of the legal system’s most well-known advocates for victims of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses,” said Missoula has made strides in handling sexual assault, but women still make decisions about whether to report with the community’s history in mind.

“The reality is Missoula doesn’t have any of the challenges in law enforcement that we don’t have everywhere else in the country,” said Clune, of the Colorado firm Hutchinson, Black and Cook. “Missoula PD (Police Department) has done a lot of good work on sexual assault. The County Attorney’s Office does a lot of great work on sexual assaults. But if you followed the Jordan Johnson case, if you read ‘Missoula,’ these things are on the frontal lobe of survivors when they consider whether or not they should report. So it’s understandable.”

Research shows sexual violence is about somebody imposing their will upon somebody else without the person being able to do anything about it.

“So there’s this element of loss of control over their own existence, over their own body, that is central to recovering from sexual assault,” Clune said as to why many women do not report assaults to law enforcement authorities. “So what survivors almost across the board want to do in the aftermath is be able to take control back of their lives or their bodies.”

He said talking to the police sounds to most survivors like the worst way of dealing with that loss of control: “It can be terrifying … The idea of turning over your worst experience of your life over to people who are going to take it and run with it without you having a lot of input is about the last thing a survivor wants to do.”

 ‘It’s a boys’ club’

Once upon a time, Robichaud said she held the law school administration and faculty members in high regard. She praised some faculty members, including ones who have served as confidantes for students. But now, not the leadership. 

“I had them on a pedestal,” Robichaud said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, these are really smart people.’ And I wanted to impress them, and I wanted to be like them. So that’s why everything that has happened in the last year and a half has been so disappointing to me. I expected more.”

Her friend, who confided in Robichaud, said she grew up cheering for the Grizzlies football team and wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. She believed the university would learn from the debacle in 2012, and she wanted to attend law school in her hometown. But she said after she herself was raped and sexually assaulted, she found discouragement and hurt in the university’s response. (See companion story about her attempt to get a no-contact order.)

“They said they would protect our Grizzlies,” she said. “They would love our Grizzlies. And then they did the total opposite. And I just want to know: Which Grizzlies are they talking about? To me, it only seems like it’s men, it’s athletes, it’s the football team. It’s not me.” 

Anderson, who will continue to run the support group she created at the law school even after graduating, said female lawyers face an uphill battle both in school and in the legal field. At UM, she said, female students ran into problems despite having a female associate dean of students. 

“It’s a boys’ club,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a boys’ club, and I think that there are certain expectations.” At one point, she said a male professor had to remind a class that if they wouldn’t treat or speak to a male professor a certain way, they shouldn’t do the same to a female professor.

Bre Koffman, a third-year student, said Weaver’s style of leadership might have been effective 20 or 30 years ago, but it isn’t today: “I think she really cares. I think there’s just a disconnect between the way she feels and the way she executes.”

Koffman, other students and recent graduates largely hold faculty apart from the top administrators. Another woman said the administration pays lip service to equity, but she lauded the faculty: “They’re exceptional and not involved (in the problems students faced) and always had our backs.”

The only law school in Montana ranks well in some key areas. Earlier this year, the law school reported that more than 92 percent of its students passed the bar exam on their first try compared to a national average of 79.6 percent in 2019. It noted 33 percent of its students are placed in judicial clerkships.

Still, Koffman, a queer woman, said she would have a hard time recommending the school to many students: “There’s a lot of better places for people who aren’t cis straight white men.”

“It really appears that if you rock the boat even a tiny bit, you become a nuisance, an enemy of the administration,” she said. “But if you’re willing to maintain the status quo, you’re going to do just fine.”

Student: Kirgis omitted sexual assault report in call to Title IX

In spring 2020, Jennifer Robichaud said she told Dean Paul Kirgis that a friend and fellow student had been sexually assaulted by another law school student: “He told me he was a mandatory reporter to Title IX, but he didn’t believe anything I told him rose to the level of Title IX.”

She said Kirgis, dean of the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law, told her he would reach out to the Title IX office.

Nine days later, Robichaud said she received a generic message from Alicia Arant, the Title IX office director, stating she understood Robichaud had information about a possible Title IX violation. Robichaud said they set up a Zoom meeting.

“She (Arant) asked me to tell her what I had said to Dean Kirgis,” Robichaud said. “So I repeated exactly what I had told Dean Kirgis. Alicia said, ‘Did you use the word sexual assault and sexual harassment?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. Multiple times. I’m a nurse. These are terms in my vocabulary.’”

Robichaud said Arant told her she had not been informed of the incidents: “She (Arant) said Dean Kirgis never told her that I had reported a sexual assault or sexual harassment. Then she said she needed to contact her boss because she didn’t know how to proceed because she had become a witness.”

Kirgis told the Daily Montanan he reported the incident “to the best of my understanding and recollection.”

Through a UM spokesperson, Arant declined an interview with the Daily Montanan, stating the Title IX office does not discuss ongoing investigations.

Law students: Weaver dissuaded classroom report to Title IX

Four students from the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law told the Daily Montanan about an ongoing classroom management problem for which they sought the advice of Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver.

In particular, Jennifer Robichaud said she was concerned when a student who had been open about her disability left the class in tears after remarks a student and professor made about mental health disabilities. Robichaud, in her final year at the law school, and the three other students said they separately sought the advice of Weaver.

Robichaud recalls that Weaver told her she had provided information about Title IX to another member of the group but told Robichaud the issue did not rise to the level of harassment. Robichaud recalled Weaver’s response: “If they want to go to Title IX, they’re not going to be happy with the outcome.”

In an email to the Daily Montanan, Weaver said she clearly told students they could seek solutions through the Title IX office: “I never attempted to dissuade any student from filing a complaint with the Title IX office. In fact, on several occasions I advised students that if they wished to pursue the remedies they had requested that they should file a claim with the Title IX office. The matter in question was handled appropriately, and the issues were resolved in an appropriate way.”

The other students who also brought the incident to Weaver told the Daily Montanan they recalled a similar response as Robichaud.

Weaver told the students if the group went to Title IX, the law school administrators wouldn’t be able to talk with the students directly, according to Robichaud and the other students. Robichaud said Weaver argued that involving the Title IX office would create hurdles for students: “We’ll have to do everything through lawyers.”

In response to the advice, Robichaud said she helped convince the rest of the group to tone down their complaints about the way the class was being handled and avoid filing a report with the Title IX office.

“I didn’t realize at that time that what Sally Weaver had done was to affirmatively dissuade us from going to Title IX,” said Robichaud, a first year law student at the time. “I didn’t recognize that she was using me to persuade the group not to go to Title IX even though she was saying, ‘Here’s the information, here’s how you can contact them.’ It was almost like, ‘I dare you. You’re not going to like what happens.’”


'It’s kind of like having your hands tied in the middle of a boxing match.'

People celebrate on Aug. 12, 2021, after the Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn a school mask order for kids in grades K-6 issued earlier in the week by the county's top health official. Republican legislators in more than half of U.S. states, spurred on by voters angry about lockdowns and mask mandates, have passed laws to take away powers state and local officials use to protect the public against infectious diseases. Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

A KHN review of hundreds of pieces of legislation found that, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb such public health powers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While some governors vetoed bills that passed, at least 26 states pushed through laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or state Supreme Court ruling limited long-held public health powers. More bills are pending in a handful of states whose legislatures are still in session.

In Arkansas, legislators banned mask mandates except in private businesses or state-run health care settings, calling them “a burden on the public peace, health, and safety of the citizens of this state.” In Idaho, county commissioners, who typically have no public health expertise, can veto countywide public health orders. And in Kansas and Tennessee, school boards, rather than health officials, have the power to close schools.

President Joe Biden last Thursday announced sweeping vaccination mandates and other COVID measures, saying he was forced to act partly because of such legislation: “My plan also takes on elected officials in states that are undermining you and these lifesaving actions.”

All told:

  • In at least 16 states, legislators have limited the power of public health officials to order mask mandates, or quarantines or isolation. In some cases, they gave themselves or local elected politicians the authority to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
  • At least 17 states passed laws banning COVID vaccine mandates or passports, or made it easier to get around vaccine requirements.
  • At least nine states have new laws banning or limiting mask mandates. Executive orders or a court ruling limit mask requirements in five more.

Much of this legislation takes effect as COVID hospitalizations in some areas are climbing to the highest numbers at any point in the pandemic, and children are back in school.

“We really could see more people sick, hurt, hospitalized or even die, depending on the extremity of the legislation and curtailing of the authority,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Public health academics and officials are frustrated that they, instead of the virus, have become the enemy. They argue this will have consequences that last long beyond this pandemic, diminishing their ability to fight the latest COVID surge and future disease outbreaks, such as being able to quarantine people during a measles outbreak.

“It’s kind of like having your hands tied in the middle of a boxing match,” said Kelley Vollmar, executive director of the Jefferson County Health Department in Missouri.

But proponents of the new limits say they are a necessary check on executive powers and give lawmakers a voice in prolonged emergencies. Arkansas state Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican who co-sponsored his state’s successful bill to ban mask mandates, said he was trying to reflect the will of the people.

“What the people of Arkansas want is the decision to be left in their hands, to them and their family,” Garner said. “It’s time to take the power away from the so-called experts, whose ideas have been woefully inadequate.”

After initially signing the bill, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed regret, calling a special legislative session in early August to ask lawmakers to carve out an exception for schools. They declined. The law is currently blocked by an Arkansas judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Legal battles are ongoing in other states as well.


In Ohio, legislators gave themselves the power to overturn health orders and weakened school vaccine mandates. In Utah and Iowa, schools cannot require masks. In Alabama, state and local governments cannot issue vaccine passports and schools cannot require COVID vaccinations.

Montana’s Legislature passed some of the most restrictive laws of all, severely curbing public health’s quarantine and isolation powers, increasing local elected officials’ power over local health boards, preventing limits on religious gatherings and banning employers — including in health care settings — from requiring vaccinations for COVID, the flu or anything else.


Legislators there also passed limits on local officials: If jurisdictions add public health rules stronger than state public health measures, they could lose 20% of some grants.

Losing the ability to order quarantines has left Karen Sullivan, health officer for Montana’s Butte-Silver Bow department, terrified about what’s to come — not only during the COVID pandemic but for future measles and whooping cough outbreaks.

“In the midst of delta and other variants that are out there, we’re quite frankly a nervous wreck about it,” Sullivan said. “Relying on morality and goodwill is not a good public health practice.”

While some public health officials tried to fight the national wave of legislation, the underfunded public health workforce was consumed by trying to implement the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history and had little time for political action.

Freeman said her city and county health officials’ group has meager influence and resources, especially in comparison with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed conservative group that promoted a model bill to restrict the emergency powers of governors and other officials. The draft legislation appears to have inspired dozens of state-level bills, according to the KHN review. At least 15 states passed laws limiting emergency powers. In some states, governors can no longer institute mask mandates or close businesses, and their executive orders can be overturned by legislators.

When North Dakota’s legislative session began in January, a long slate of bills sought to rein in public health powers, including one with language similar to ALEC’s. The state didn’t have a health director to argue against the new limits because three had resigned in 2020.

Fighting the bills not only took time, but also seemed dangerous, said Renae Moch, public health director for Bismarck, who testified against a measure prohibiting mask mandates. She then received an onslaught of hate mail and demands for her to be fired.

Lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to pass the bill into law. The North Dakota Legislature also banned businesses from asking whether patrons are vaccinated against or infected with the coronavirus and curbed the governor’s emergency powers.

The new laws are meant to reduce the power of governors and restore the balance of power between states’ executive branches and legislatures, said Jonathon Hauenschild, director of the ALEC task force on communications and technology. “Governors are elected, but they were delegating a lot of authority to the public health official, often that they had appointed,” Hauenschild said.


When the Indiana Legislature overrode the governor’s veto to pass a bill that gave county commissioners the power to review public health orders, it was devastating for Dr. David Welsh, the public health officer in rural Ripley County.

People immediately stopped calling him to report COVID violations, because they knew the county commissioners could overturn his authority. It was “like turning off a light switch,” Welsh said.

Another county in Indiana has already seen its health department’s mask mandate overridden by the local commissioners, Welsh said.

He’s considering stepping down after more than a quarter century in the role. If he does, he’ll join at least 303 public health leaders who have retired, resigned or been fired since the pandemic began, according to an ongoing KHN and AP analysis. That means 1 in 5 Americans have lost a local health leader during the pandemic.

“This is a deathblow,” said Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health. He called the legislative assault the last straw for many seasoned public health officials who have battled the pandemic without sufficient resources, while also being vilified.

Public health groups expect further combative legislation. ALEC’s Hauenschild said the group is looking into a Michigan law that allowed the Legislature to limit the governor’s emergency powers without Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature. 

Curbing the authority of public health officials has also become campaign fodder, particularly among Republican candidates running further on the right. While Republican Idaho Gov. Brad Little was traveling out of state, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin signed a surprise executive order banning mask mandates that she later promoted for her upcoming campaign against him. He later reversed the ban, tweeting, “I do not like petty politics. I do not like political stunts over the rule of law.”

At least one former lawmaker — former Oregon Democratic state Sen. Wayne Fawbush — said some of today’s politicians may come to regret these laws.

Fawbush was a sponsor of 1989 legislation during the AIDS crisis. It banned employers from requiring health care workers, as a condition of employment, to get an HIV vaccine, if one became available. 

But 32 years later, that means Oregon cannot require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID. Calling lawmaking a “messy business,” Fawbush said he certainly wouldn’t have pushed the bill through if he had known then what he does now.

“Legislators need to obviously deal with immediate situations,” Fawbush said. “But we have to look over the horizon. It’s part of the job responsibility to look at consequences.”

KHN data reporter Hannah Recht, Montana correspondent Katheryn Houghton and Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.