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Amid increasing numbers and campus frustration, UW officials discuss sexual assault prevention

The University of Wyoming is studying its lighting and landscaping and considering using a cellphone safety app as students raise concerns in the wake of a recent sexual assault.

“We’ve done a lot on sexual assault prevention, which is things like don’t like walk alone at night, call the escort service,” UW President Laurie Nichols told the Star-Tribune last week. “Students appreciate it, (but) they haven’t been as responsive to that. They would like to see us go back and really analyze the campus and point out to us areas where they think we can work to make the campus a safer place.”

Campus sexual assault, which Nichols said is a “critical issue,” has been especially prominent at UW in recent weeks. A female — whose age and affiliation with the university is unclear — was tackled and sexually assaulted by a stranger on Nov. 10 as she walked across a War Memorial Stadium parking lot. Details remain scant on the assault: The victim did not personally report the assault to police, who learned of it more than 24 hours later. Nichols said there’s little new information on the investigation, and the assailant has not been identified.

She noted that despite a common misconception, the rapist or attacker is typically known to the victim.

The attack was one of five reports of sexual assault that the University of Wyoming Police Department has received in 2017, said UW spokesman Chad Baldwin. He cautioned that that may not be a complete count of the number of sexual assaults that are reported at the school, as it did not take into account reports made to other entities on campus, like the counseling center. Final numbers will be prepared in the coming weeks.

Four of the five assaults in 2017 took place in UW residence halls or apartments, Baldwin said.

Total numbers from previous years show an uptick in overall reports, university data shows. There were 19 reports of forcible sexual assault in 2016, 14 in 2015 and nine in 2014. University police received 15 reports in 2013, five in 2012 and seven in 2011.

Sean Blackburn, UW’s vice president for student affairs, told lawmakers Thursday that the university believes that the recent increase in reports is a result of more awareness rather than more assaults. A greater number of victims may feel more comfortable coming forward now because of the university’s efforts, he said.

“So we actually see that as a success, as more students come forward to get help and assistance and get connected to the different resources,” Blackburn told lawmakers on the Joint Appropriations Committee, who were discussing the university’s budget but had asked Nichols about sexual assault rates.

Nichols, who also spoke to lawmakers Thursday morning, said she watches the sexual assault numbers “like a hawk.”

“Anytime there’s a sexual assault, we have a meeting immediately to talk about it,” she told the committee. She ticked off what officials discuss at those meetings: “What happened, could it have been prevented, what can we do about it, is the victim being provided for and what else can we do about it. So believe me, I’m – we are working on this on a case-by-case basis, but it’s that important.”

Still, students appear frustrated. Wyoming Public Media, which has reported on victims of sexual assault at the university, wrote in August that UW is facing a federal investigation for its handling of sexual violence reports. After the November assault, students held a walkout and delivered a petition to Nichols’ office that called for timelier handling of allegations, notifications of assault that happen off-campus, better lighting, and more.

“It was just a student gathering ... where they were trying to bring to light that students were, you know, not happy with where we’re at right now with sexual assault and they wanted us to do more for campus safety,” Nichols told the Star-Tribune.

She said the university has listened: The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming has formed a committee to look more closely at campus safety, and the university is studying its lighting and landscaping, among other things.

Nichols said officials were also looking at a smartphone app called SafeTrek. If a student feels unsafe in a situation that doesn’t yet require calling 911, he or she places a finger on the screen. If student feels better, he or she can remove their finger and type in a pin number. But if the situation escalates and the student needs assistance, then the pin is not entered and emergency services are dispatched to that location.

The university currently has blue lights on its campus. The system involves tall blue poles placed around campus that light up at night and can be used by people walking across campus to contact authorities should they feel unsafe.

For a little less than a year, the university has also been running its own No More campaign, part of an international effort to shed more light on sexual and domestic violence.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Ilima Yurchyk, a dancer with the Moscow Ballet, stretches Thursday afternoon before rehearsal for the Great Russian Nutcracker at the Casper Events Center. Local children joined the touring troupe on stage for Thursday night's performance.  

Money stalls for new Casper Events Center seats

The city is ready to move forward with plans to improve the Casper Events Center by fixing the uncomfortable seating and installing walk-thru metal detectors, but a disagreement over the disbursement of county-wide consensus funds has left the project at a standstill.

The State Loan and Investment Board approved the use of Countywide Consensus Grants for multiple projects submitted by Natrona County for the 2015-2016 fiscal years, but one of those plans — the Amoco Reuse Convention Center — never panned out.

As a result, about $2.2 million of the allotted money is leftover for municipalities in Natrona County, according to a recent memo from Assistant City Manager Fleur Tremel. The city of Casper wants to use $600,000 for new Casper Events Center seats and metal detectors, $200,000 for a public safety radio tower and $185,646 to replace the Casper Ice Arena ice plant.

Casper City Council authorized Mayor Kenyne Humphrey to sign off on these projects at its Tuesday night meeting, but the Natrona County Commission chairman also needs to approve the applications before they can be submitted to the investment board for approval. And the county commission isn’t so sure.

It’s unlikely that the county will be receiving additional consensus funding anytime soon, said Natrona County Commission Chairman John Lawson, and he thought the city and county agreed the money should be used for urgent projects such as the public safety tower or saved for similar future projects.

Consensus money comes from the state and cannot be used for a city’s operational costs such as hiring another police officer or snow plow operator. It’s intended purpose is to help communities with various infrastructure issues.

If Casper leaders have since decided they would prefer for the funding to be divided up now to address issues at the Ice Arena and Events Center, then the commission needs to review the matter again before agreeing, Lawson explained.

“We are not trying to tell the city of Casper how to use their dollars,” he said.

But Casper City Councilman Charlie Powell said Wednesday that the Council believes the commission is overstepping its bounds.

“We need to come to a conclusion and it’s our stance that the county commissioners are essentially trying to control decisions that are properly made by the Casper City Council,” he said.

Although Powell said he did not initially consider the seating issue at the events center to be a serious problem, the councilman has decided the facility is “essentially not functional” with the existing seats.

Some Council members had previously expressed reluctance to spend money on the seating, but many supported the project at Tuesday night’s meeting. The city’s current plan would involve upgrading only a portion of the seats at this time, and would also make the facility more easily accessible for those with disabilities.

“To me, making improvements to the facility that are going to improve public safety for people with disabilities is important,” said Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay.

The city upgraded the center’s seats about five years ago, but the change resulted in significantly more consumer complaints and decreased attendance, according to a recent memo from Financial Services Director Tom Pitlick. those upgraded seats cost the city $1.2 million.

Hussey Seating Company handled the seat replacement project, according to Napier. City staffers involved with the project in 2012-2013 are no longer employed by the city and therefore cannot explain their rationale behind the decision, Napier previously explained.

Further discussions and meetings about the consensus funds will take place at an undecided date.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Kelly Walsh Lady Trojans guard Madision Vinich (5) gets ready to jump toward the basket during their game against the Riverton Lady Wolverines Thursday afternoon, Dec. 7, 2017.

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Controversial methane rule delayed for another year

The fate of an Obama-era federal rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas activities was sealed Thursday, at least for now.

The Bureau of Land Management has suspended compliance for oil and gas operators on some aspects of the 2016 methane regulations until 2019.

The methane waste and prevention rule has had its fair share of ups and downs this year. Industry, and states like Wyoming, fought for a court injunction to delay the first compliance date in January, but failed. In the spring, Congress attempted to ax the rules employing a seldom-used law that eliminates last minute actions from a previous administration. They also failed.

Then a court ruled against the Interior Department in October when the agency tried to simply suspend the rule after it was in place.

Wyoming operators have said they were ready to comply with new requirements, like on-the-ground checks for leaks and infrared camera systems. But they were still holding out hope for the rule’s potential elimination.

Thursday’s action appears to have cleared up the uncertainty.

The BLM is currently working to revise or eliminate the rule in accordance with the president’s dictate to review or remove federal rules that burden industry development.

“As we strengthen America’s energy independence, we need to make sure that regulations do not unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, or prevent job creation,” Brian Steed, BLM deputy director for policy and programs, said in a statement Thursday.

Environmentalists who’ve been advocating for controls on industry to address methane emissions admonished the administration for its decision Thursday.

“While states are moving forward to implement and strengthen their rules on methane, Secretary (Ryan) Zinke is running backwards,” said Dan Grossman, national director of state programs for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement.

The organization is one of the groups arguing that the rules protect taxpayer dollars, as the methane vented or flared from public resources adds up to hundreds of millions in lost revenue every year, they say.

About 87 percent of Wyomingites in the most recent State of the Rockies Conservation of the West poll agreed with the methane restrictions. The state has already placed some of the same provisions contested in the BLM rule in its regulations for pollution rich regions in the state, namely the Upper Green River Basin.

Industry groups that opposed the rule have downplayed the revenue impact, arguing that the leaked or flared gas is not always saleable as it contains more than just methane.

“It is never the desire of any company to waste a valuable product that could otherwise be brought to market and sold to the American consumers,” said Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, in a statement.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the BLM’s decision proves that the agency doesn’t believe it has the authority to regulate air quality in the first place, a longstanding argument from industry groups.

The delay will be good news for companies that would have had to make costly adjustments complying with the rule despite its long term uncertainty, she said.

“It makes no sense for companies to comply with a rule that is being significantly rewritten,” she said.