BETHEL – The Brown House was questionable from the get-go. There was the leaky roof and the mouse invasion, the faulty furnace and the funky door locks.
A young teacher new to the Kuskokwim River village of Akiachak ended up in the Brown House — part of Yupiit School District teacher housing — in the fall of 2011, after she took a job at the small village school.
There, a federal lawsuit says, she became a target of hostility and harassment that escalated into men regularly banging on her door asking for sex. Eventually, the suit says, she was sexually assaulted. She left the village right after that, in January 2014, mid-school year.
The teacher, through the lawsuit, contends that sexual harassment was "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" that it deprived her of her ability to work at Akiachak School. She says the mistreatment amounted to a violation of her rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,
a the law to protect against sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs.
The woman is now 30 and teaching in a different Alaska school district. Alaska Dispatch News, which generally does not name victims of sexual assault, is not naming the teacher.
The suit names as defendants the Yupiit School District and three district officials. She also named the head of Alaska State Troopers and the trooper who investigated her report of a sexual assault, alleging the troopers botched the case.
The case opens a window into an isolated rural school district with particularly challenging conditions. But education leaders say rural teachers generally don't face an especially high risk of violence.
The teacher claims the school district failed to provide her safe housing even though she told officials of numerous problems. She says troopers failed to fully investigate her sexual assault or even keep her informed about any investigation's progress.
Teachers in many Bush Alaska schools routinely rent apartments or homes through their district because there is no other housing available.
Neither the Yupiit School District nor Alaska State Troopers would address the specifics of the lawsuit, filed in December, or the overall issues of teacher safety.
"We've reviewed the complaint and the allegations directed at the district are untrue. We just can't comment any further on it," said Rayna Hartz, acting superintendent for Yupiit School District, headquartered in Akiachak upriver from Bethel.
Megan Peters, a troopers spokeswoman in Anchorage, said troopers don't keep statistics based on the occupation of the victim and couldn't talk about teacher safety generally because of the lawsuit.
The Brown House
When the teacher arrived in Akiachak in the late summer of 2011 to teach fourth grade, she said in a telephone interview, she had a few years experience and was ready for an Alaska adventure. She was hired at a job fair in Oregon where she saw pictures of the village. She borrowed a school district video.
But, she said, "I didn't know what I was getting into."
The Yupiit School District is tiny, with just three Kuskokwim River villages — Akiachak, Akiak and Tuluksak — under its authority.
Challenges there are deep rooted, going back to the boarding school era when children were sent away. Alaska Native leaders carved out their own small district there in the mid-1980s to hold onto cultural tradition.
The district of 460 students is now on its fourth superintendent in five years. Its students for years have scored at the bottom of the state on standardized tests. In 2015, almost no student in any grade met state standards.
Yupiit also was one of three districts along with NEA-Alaska and individual parents who sued the state in 2004 to seek more funding for rural schools. The case was settled with the state providing an extra $18 million for the 40 lowest performing schools. In 2014, Yupiit School District settled a civil lawsuit for $2 million in which nine girls accused another teacher, a man, of sexual molestation and inappropriate behavior.
When the woman teacher arrived from Oregon in 2011, she was assigned to a local family to immerse in the culture. She went to fish camp. She made a few local friends and went berry picking and to birthday parties. She had her students dissect blackfish for science class.
The children, she said, were fun and funny and bright. Their low test scores don't reflect their abilities, she said.
The Brown House was near a swampy area by derelict trailers and the old school-turned-storage-building, far from most teacher housing, she said. The area was a party spot in a dry village, where alcohol is officially banned.
The door lock didn't always work. The key to a separate deadbolt was the same key that opened the Akiachak school, and 20 or more people had a copy, the lawsuit said.
At times, the teacher had a roommate. They would hear drunken people outside and occasionally one knocked on the door.
Problems escalated when she lived alone, the lawsuit said. For stretches, strange men would knock on the teacher's door almost nightly asking for sex, the suit said.
She contends she reported the harassment to district officials including then-superintendent Kim Langton, assistant superintendent Diane George and then-principal Peggie Price. Langton, reached at his bed-and-breakfast in Utah, where he is now retired, declined to comment. Price and George declined too.
The lawsuit says the district knew of dangers because Langton, then assistant superintendent, had warned her in 2011 to be careful: A teacher farther upriver in Tuluksak had been raped the year before. Then, in April 2012, a drunken school maintenance man came to the home of Akiak teacher Lara Ruark, according to the suit. Ruark said in an interview that it happened around 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the man was "sad drunk" and ran off as she tried to summon help. The district directed the maintenance man to stay away and he did.
Teacher Joshua Johnson, who also worked in Akiachak, wrote a letter in December 2012 to then-Gov. Sean Parnell and Alaska's education commissioner, Mike Hanley, that pointed to those incidents and others and warned of a dangerous climate, the suit noted.
Lawsuit: Harassment escalates
In January 2012, the teacher in the lawsuit saw a man chopping the wooden support post for her house with an ax and shouted to make him leave. In August of that year, before her roommate arrived, she awoke to see two male teenagers "staring at her inside her bedroom," the suit said.
For the 2013-14 school year, a time when she was again without a roommate, the sexual harassment worsened, the suit said.
That September, someone wrote "Bitch" and other words on her door, the suit said. Someone had been trying her doorknob so she installed what she called a "medieval" barricade with a 2-by-4 and brackets on the inside of the door.
In early December 2013, she came home one night after working late at the school and found her home had been vandalized. Later that month, someone threw a rock at her bedroom window, shattering the exterior pane, the suit said.
The teacher wanted out of the Brown House. Price told her she could move after Christmas break, the suit said.
When she returned to the village in January 2014, her new place wasn't yet available. She told the principal and superintendent she would sleep at the school in the meantime. She was gathering her belongings from the Brown House, when, according to the lawsuit, she suffered an epileptic seizure and lost consciousness. When she awoke, her pants were down and her chest cut, the suit said. She had been sexually assaulted, the suit said.
She couldn't get anyone to answer at the village police station but when she called troopers, they told her to call village police, the suit said. Someone who answered an on-call police cellphone told her to quit calling, the suit said. Eventually a friend reached troopers. Mark Mata, the village police chief, said in an interview that police secured the home but left the investigation to troopers. The teacher flew to Bethel for a rape exam.
Needed teacher housing
The lawsuit contends that troopers failed to submit a rape kit for testing at the state crime lab in Anchorage in the teacher's case. Then in January, Caitlin Shortell, the teacher's attorney, said she was told the rape kit had been tested.
The attorney said she is still reviewing the results but maintains that the testing and other parts of the investigation fell short.
The teacher declined to talk about the reported assault or her medical condition.
State officials are concerned about teacher safety. Challenges emerge in cities like Anchorage as well as remote villages, Hanley, the state education commissioner, said in an interview.
"When teachers don't feel safe, when they don't feel connected enough to feel like they are supported and can do their job safely, the results exacerbate our ability to help our students," Hanley said. "They don't stay. They don't connect. We have a high level of turnover."
Hanley said he has been talking with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. about creative ways to improve teacher housing.
The state budget crisis, he said, may forestall any new effort for now.
The lawsuit, meanwhile, is in early stages.
The teacher is seeking damages, a school district program to deal with sexual harassment, and a thorough investigation of the reported sexual assault.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing