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'Hunting Ground' filmmakers: UAF's Powers makes Alaska a leader against campus sexual assault

We were thrilled to hear this week that the University of Alaska Fairbanks has taken a bold step toward making their campus a safer and more supportive place for all students.

Interim Chancellor Mike Powers bravely apologized to the UAF community for his university's failure to appropriately handle cases of sexual assault over the past five years.

Powers apologized for the university's lack of action in responding to assault cases and called out the callous behavior of college communities that actively brush this issue under the rug to protect their own reputations.

Powers' bold statements put Alaska at the forefront for how colleges and universities should respond to unacceptably high numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses. We hope that the chancellor's comments embolden other university leaders to stand with him.

Powers said he came to this conclusion after watching the documentary film "The Hunting Ground," which focuses on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and the failure of academic institutions to appropriately act to prevent and adjudicate them.

As the filmmakers behind the documentary, we commend Powers for his leadership and are encouraged by his honesty.

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of people who wish to downplay the problem and pretend that 1 in 5 women are not being sexually assaulted during their time in college. The overwhelming number of studies shows that this is an ongoing reality.

National and single-school studies have been conducted across a wide range of institutions, from large public universities to small liberal arts schools, religious schools to so-called "party schools," women's colleges to research universities. They all come to the same universal conclusion -- that sexual assault is a rampant problem on college campuses across our country.

Powers courageously admitted that UAF's own rates of reported sexual assault have been "so low as to be implausible." UAF is not alone. In 2012, the 31 colleges across Alaska reported only eight forcible sexual assaults to the Department of Education, and nationally, universities reported an average of less than one forcible sexual assault per campus. Something is not adding up.

The sad reason behind these low rates of reporting is that women are often discouraged from speaking up and reporting their assaults.

The role that universities play in reversing this trend can not be overstated. Experts agree that nothing will change unless schools acknowledge these crimes, create school environments where students feel safe reporting their experiences, and implement policies that protect both victims and the accused.

When we began making this film, it was our hope that we could create a powerful documentary that would resonate with audiences. As we started investigating, we found that sexual assault on college campuses was pervasive and routinely ignored by administrators at colleges and universities. We made this film to raise awareness about this issue and hopefully inspire action across the country.

We are thrilled that "The Hunting Ground" has had this effect at UAF and we are looking forward to seeing what steps Powers and the school take to address the issue of sexual assault on campus.

We need more leaders like Chancellor Powers to step up and protect students on campuses across America. Universities have to professionalize their investigation and adjudication processes, encourage all survivors to report assaults, and provide ongoing mental health support and accommodations to survivors.

Together, we must address this problem squarely and work to end sexual assault on campuses and on our streets. We owe it to the millions of students who walked onto college campuses this year and the millions who will start in the years to come. We also owe it to the survivors of sexual assault who bravely told their stories in the hopes that no other student will have to suffer through the same experience. Academic institutions should be places of higher learning and personal growth, not places to fear. We have the solutions to fix the problem; we now need the public will to address it with our eyes open. Thanks to Chancellor Powers, we are now seeing that first step.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are the Academy Award-nominated and two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers behind "The Hunting Ground," which is currently being screened on college campuses across the country.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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