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Review finds Alaska university mishandled sexual assault cases for years

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 20, 2015

The interim chancellor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks said Tuesday that from 2011 to 2014, his institution failed to follow its own student discipline policies when dealing with sexual assaults on campus, based on an internal university review.

UAF Interim Chancellor Mike Powers said during a press conference Tuesday that a "breakdown" in the reporting system allowed at least five cases where students were not suspended or expelled for sexual assault even after university investigators had found misconduct.

The university's review, which covered three academic years from 2011 to 2014, found 42 cases involving sexual misconduct, with five that rose to the level of major sanctions.

UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said in some cases informal actions were taken, like removing the accused from campus or eviction from the dorms, but that the final formal action of suspension or expulsion was never taken.

Powers said that in the five UAF cases there were concurrent criminal processes that "went through to completion."

The announcement comes about a year after federal investigators from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights were in Alaska to audit campuses in the University of Alaska system as part of a nationwide investigation. A University of Alaska attorney said at the time that the review was to gauge Title IX compliance and wasn't in response to specific complaints.

Title IX is the federal law that guarantees gender equity in education and encompasses the proper handling of sexual assault complaints.

Grimes said the deficiencies announced Tuesday were found as part of the university's overall Title IX work that was "informed and influenced by the OCR review," but not found as part of the OCR review process itself. Release of the OCR report is still pending, and it "could be a year or more" before it's completed, Grimes said.

"It heightened awareness and prompted not just us, but probably every university across the U.S., to look at their practices when it comes to sexual violence," she said of the OCR review.

University officials were still trying to pinpoint the exact cause of the breakdown but said new procedures were in place to deal with the oversights. Grimes said that since the internal review was completed, the university has suspended or expelled seven students in 2015. Of those cases, three involved sexual misconduct.

An external review of the university is also pending, according to University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen. He said at the press conference that the review would likely be completed "in a few months" and that a summary of the findings will be available to the public. Grimes did not immediately know who was conducting the review.

In a statement to the community Tuesday, Powers wrote that UAF's reported sexual assault statistics seemed "so low as to be implausible, especially when sexual assault is so prevalent in Alaska." He wrote that the UAF Police Department investigates complaints and pursues charges when appropriate, and that staff members offered victims services, but that "for years we failed to follow our own student discipline policies for the most serious violations of the student code of conduct."

"… As the brother of someone who was similarly violated 40 years ago, I am incensed that our communities still have not adequately dealt with this opportunistic and cowardly behavior," Powers wrote. "It's time for this to end."

The university will host a town hall meeting on the subject Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Wood Center. Powers, who was appointed interim chancellor in July, said he plans to visit rural campuses in the coming weeks to continue similar discussions.

"I would like to see this as a wonderful -- as crazy as that sounds -- opportunity to advance this cause and frankly address the issue of sexual violence on campus," Powers said at the press conference Tuesday. "We're in a unique position to make that happen."

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