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New details emerge in mishandling of University of Alaska sex assault cases

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 23, 2017

Days after the University of Alaska announced it would be taking steps to improve its Title IX compliance, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released a letter detailing failings of the statewide system in greater detail.

The 32-page letter, released to University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen on Tuesday, explains that the university system failed to provide "prompt and equitable" investigations into sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints over several years. The failures included not conducting or completing investigations, not completing them promptly or failing to provide notice of the outcomes, among other issues.

The findings of the report come after a nearly three-year-long federal compliance review on how the University of Alaska system handled reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The Office for Civil Rights reviewed dozens of other universities across the country.

The investigation, which began in 2014, looked at the three main campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau as well as satellite campuses around the state. It investigated cases going back to the 2011-12 school year through 2014-15.

The letter outlines 17 cases but lacks specific details, including which campuses or departments were involved.

The incidents themselves reveal different failings of the university's Title IX program.

In 2013, university faculty became aware that one of its students placed in various middle and high schools as a student teacher was accused of sexually harassing middle school students.

According to the letter, no one reported the incident to the university's Title IX office, took steps to initiate a complaint or sought any advice from the university's administration. Six months after internal conversations, the Title IX compliance officer discovered the misconduct through a news report. They ultimately declined to take action since there was "allegedly no victim at the university."

Multiple investigations outlined in the letter showed that employees, when confronted with allegations, chose to resign and that officials often did not follow up on complaints once the respondent left.

A complaint from 2012 shows that a university employee — the person's position is redacted in the letter — was involved in an intimate relationship with a student. System officials investigated the report and conducted witness interviews. The employee opted to resign "in lieu of participating in the investigative interview."

Three months later, the officials received another report that the replacement had also engaged in sexual assault and sexual harassment during a recruiting trip. The replacement also opted to resign following an interview.

In both cases, the OCR found the university failed to provide relief to students or complete its investigation following the resignations.

In another case, a director at a satellite college was alleged to have sexually harassed multiple students, employees and members of the community. After interviewing the director, the person resigned immediately. There was no evidence that the university completed the investigation or provided relief to victims.

In 2013, a female student reported being assaulted and restrained by a male student in a university dorm room. The files show that the perpetrator of the assault was barred from residences other than his own, but was otherwise allowed to remain on campus.

A year later, the Title IX office learned the same student had sexually assaulted another female student on campus. The university completed its investigation and notified the second student 151 days after her complaint was filed. It then took another 52 days before the perpetrator was expelled from campus.

Other cases showed that even when issues were brought to university attention, investigations were often delayed or suspended due to law enforcement activities.

The letter also notes instances of students reporting assaults or harassment and the university failing to protect against retaliation or provide interim measures, like changing class schedules or dorm assignments.

On Friday, Johnsen signed an agreement with the federal office promising to complete a list of steps within a set timeline to improve its responses to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the future. UA also said it would review 23 old sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints, which the federal office said illustrated its concerns with the university system's processes.

It's unclear why the Tuesday letter does not address all of the 23 cases the university announced it would be reopening Monday. Calls to representatives from the Office for Civil Rights were not returned Thursday.

University of Alaska spokeswoman Robbie Graham called the findings an "important waypoint for the university in its work to improve student safety."

"While the details are painful to read, we continue to work on improving student safety," she wrote in an email Thursday. "We now have established Title IX offices at each campus, rigor in our investigations, urgency to the importance of those efforts and an unwavering call to get this right."

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