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After UAF sex assault revelations, University of Alaska will launch additional review

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2015

A federal investigation looking at how sexual violence is handled within the University of Alaska system is still pending, but universities across the state have already started implementing changes in their Title IX reporting requirements.

The University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast completed self-audits in preparation for a compliance review by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, in some cases finding small issues to be resolved. The University of Alaska Fairbanks' own audit found instances in which the university did not follow its own discipline policies regarding sexual assault on campus. The internal review of the university's Title IX procedures found five cases where students were not suspended or expelled for sexual assault even after university investigators had found misconduct.

As a result, the University of Alaska statewide system said it would begin an external review by Anchorage attorney Jeff Feldman to look at the process used by university leadership in handling Title IX disciplinary actions at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Title IX is the federal law that guarantees gender equity in education and encompasses the proper handling of sexual assault complaints. In a press conference Tuesday, interim UAF Chancellor Mike Powers said the university has taken steps to address those lapses, though he did not indicate what "breakdowns" in the process had previously occurred.

The external review will look at three major areas, according to Roberta Graham, associate vice president of public affairs and federal relations with the University of Alaska. Those include:

  • The root cause of why the major sanctions at UAF were not initiated for certain sexual assault allegations from 2011 to 2014.
  • Whether UA leadership -- including at UAF, statewide and the Board of Regents -- took appropriate steps in a timely matter to assess and remedy the problem once it was discovered.
  • Whether the steps taken to date adequately and effectively address the systemic or other failures that occurred in reporting.
  • The review is expected to begin soon and take between three and four months.

    Statewide Associate General Counsel Mike O'Brien said in a phone interview Wednesday that the entire UA system has been working since 2011 to be in full compliance with Title IX, long before the Office of Civil Rights initiated its compliance review. He said while there's a "correlation" between the instances being discovered on campuses, it was not a "causation" of the review.

    "(The OCR review) has been a catalyst and we welcomed it and we're better for it," he said. "But this is part of an ongoing process campuses had taken on before the review."

    Graham noted it was an issue the UA Board of Regents has taken on as well. Recently, the body updated its student code of conduct and looked closely at issues surrounding Title IX. Major changes include adding gender identity as a protected class and specifically defining what constitutes sexual consent.

    Audits at other universities

    The University of Alaska Anchorage also launched its own audit in Spring 2015. UAA Assistant Vice Chancellor for University Relations Kristin DeSmith said in an email Wednesday that audit revealed "documentation errors that have since been corrected." In a phone interview, she said she did not know what the errors were but that they were "nothing that hindered our Title IX investigative process or indicated that our major sanction process was not correctly implemented."

    She wrote that between 2011 and 2014, UAA had eight cases that could have resulted in suspension or expulsion as a result of sexual misconduct. Of those, UAA suspended or expelled students in seven of those instances, with a lesser sanction possible for the other case.

    Michael Ciri, Vice Chancellor for Administration at the University of Alaska Southeast, said the university's internal audit didn't show any issues of concern. But he said how Title IX compliance is instituted has been "rapidly changing." He said UAS has been working to come into full compliance based on guidance from the Office of Civil Rights, and that the university is currently working to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator, replacing the part-time position that Ciri currently occupies in addition to his role as vice chancellor.

    That dual role, Ciri said, is of short duration. He said the sooner a Title IX coordinator can be hired, the sooner more outreach can be done on campus.

    He said the number of complaints received at the Southeast campus -- the smallest of the three universities -- is small, but he still thinks it is chronically under-reported. He welcomes the discussion and broader outreach on the topic on campus.

    "They do say that you know you're starting to do (compliance) well when you suddenly see the number of complaints go up," he said. "I haven't seen a sudden jump, so maybe that indicates that there's more that we can be doing."

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