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University of Alaska to reopen 23 sexual assault and harassment cases

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 20, 2017

The University of Alaska will reopen 23 sexual assault and sexual harassment complaint files at its three campuses under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

In an announcement Monday, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said the university would also complete a list of steps to improve its responses to such complaints in the future.

The 23 complaints that UA needs to reassess, according to the agreement, were brought between 2011 and mid-2015, Johnsen said at a news conference Monday afternoon announcing the agreement with the federal government. He acknowledged that the university's compliance problems ranged from "very serious failures to documentation issues."

The 18-page agreement follows a nearly three-year review by the Office for Civil Rights into the university system's handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints.

In the agreement, the Office for Civil Rights said its concerns were illustrated in the 23 complaints. The complaints came from all three UA campuses and involved students, staff, faculty and community members. In all cases, the federal office identified specific ways UA had failed or the steps it had missed.

In many cases, the university did not provide complainants temporary relief, like classroom changes or new living situations, among other interim measures, while the cases were investigated. In a few cases, UA failed to promptly complete its investigation.

In three cases, the university went after the people who brought the complaints, targeting them for underage drinking, according to the agreement.

Johnsen said that policy has since changed, and UA has made numerous other changes in recent years.

Since the Office for Civil Rights began its review in 2014, the university conducted an internal audit and hired an attorney to review its handling of sexual assault cases.

"That proactive step allowed us to self-identify serious problems and start our own efforts to correct those problems right away," Johnsen said.

He said the UA system has required additional training for students and employees, formed student advisory committees, provided advocates for people affected by sexual violence and increased the number of staff who handle sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints.

UA also adopted a statewide database to consolidate its case tracking and reporting systems, said Michael Votava, UAA director of student conduct and ethical development. Votava said that some of the problems flagged in the agreement, like a failure to provide interim relief, may actually have been a failure to document the actions taken, not a lack of action.

Still, UA officials said Monday that the university system had room to improve.

"This agreement doesn't mean our work ends here, not by a long shot," Johnsen said. "We have a long way to go and we continue to build capacity and improve our responses. This is not an easy problem to fix but keeping our campuses safe is our responsibility."

The improvements in the agreement include more training, revising policies and procedures, and reviewing all sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints made between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. The agreement establishes deadlines by which UA must make all of the required fixes.

The university said that between July 1, 2015, and Jan. 31, 2017, 327 complaints were filed, mostly over alleged harassment, but 59 were for sexual assault and 15 for sexual contact. The university said 24 cases remained open. Among the others, 19 cases were investigated and determined to be "founded" and were forwarded for sanctions, while eight were determined to be unfounded. The remaining 276 cases were reviewed and forwarded for a full investigation, the university said.

Johnsen said UA was one of roughly 200 universities nationwide that were or are currently under review by the Office for Civil Rights.

The office's review of UA began in May 2014 with the university system providing it with more than 20,000 documents, including 274 complaint files. The office is expected to release its full findings in the coming days.

Johnsen said UA did not enter into the agreement with the Office for Civil Rights "grudgingly or with hesitation — at all."

"We agree literally with everything in this agreement," he said. "We're not being compelled to enter into it. We think it's the right thing to do, and I think that's reflected in the many pieces of this that we've already begun."

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