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Justice Department probes University of Montana student rape reports

(Reuters) - The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the handling of numerous sexual assault allegations involving students at the University of Montana, where at least two members of the football team are accused of rape.

University President Royce Engstrom told Reuters he was informed of the inquiry during a 30-minute meeting on Monday with Justice Department officials, who told him the probe would examine the actions of the Missoula-based university, city police and county prosecutors.

Engstrom said it was not made clear to him what prompted the federal inquiry, but he cited "a general heightened awareness of sexual assault activity on our campus and community," adding, "It's certainly related to that."

A previous inquiry conducted for the university by former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz documented nine student-related instances of alleged sexual assault or attempted sexual assault since late 2010, including one reported gang rape.

One of the nine cases she identified marks the only one in which a criminal case has been brought -- a charge of rape against Montana Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson.

Two more sexual assault allegations have since surfaced on campus, including against another athlete. Both players say they are innocent.

Coach Robin Pflugrad was himself unexpectedly let go from the team in March, along with athletic director Jim O'Day. Engstrom offered no public explanation when he declined to renew their contracts. But the abrupt dismissal of two top figures from a successful sports program was widely seen as precipitated by the rape allegations.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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