Red Zone: They came forward. Then what?

UAA received 86 Title IX reports from July 2017 to June 2018; none of them resulted in disciplinary action. At UAF, the numbers were even further divided with 218 reports and three sanctions. Eight cases at UAA and 15 cases at UAF meet requirements for further action.

A Title IX or Violence Against Women Act report includes sexual or gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sexual contact, dating or domestic violence, stalking or retaliation.

The University of Alaska releases Title IX scorecards that include information on complaints made to the Title IX offices at the UA campuses. The scorecards also overview deadlines the university must meet under the Voluntary Resolution Agreement, a contract UA signed in February of last year. The signing of the VRA followed an Office for Civil Rights compliance review of the university’s handling of Title IX cases.

“The university entered into the contract because there was an investigation. [OCR] did find areas they felt the university needed to improve, and so this kind of formalizes that,” Chief Title IX Officer Mary Gower said.

In a letter to UA President Jim Johnsen, the OCR wrote that the university system had “violated Title IX” with respect to its response to sexual harassment complaints. In particular, the OCR states that the university’s processing times were too long.

“[During the 2013-14 academic year] UAF’s case processing time averaged 122 days and the longest time was 567 days; UAA had an average of 97 days and the longest case took 403 days, and UAS provided only one investigative record to OCR for a case that took 125 days. Investigations required less time in 2014-2015, with averages ranging from a high of 155 at UAF to 58 at UAA,” the letter states.

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Jessie Wattum, a student at UAF, submitted a report to the UAF equivalent of the Title IX office in 2016 for a sexual assault she says she experienced on residential campus.

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“Title IX drug their feet the entire time,” Wattum said. “This is where I’m really bitter actually. So Title IX says… it’s supposed to be resolved in like 60 working days or something, and my case wasn’t even resolved until six months later.”

The most recent UAA scorecard states that 73 cases were closed within the 60 day guideline but eight were closed after 60 days. At UAF 197 cases were closed within 60 days and 11 were closed after a greater period of time had passed.

Changes in Title IX Leadership

Last spring, UAA held open forums for the position of director of the Office of Equity and Compliance and Title IX coordinator. Human Resource Services Director Ron Kamahele had been leading the Office of Equity and Compliance in an interim capacity since September of 2017.

Three people were brought in for open forums with the UAA community including Patrick Shipwash, who was later hired to be a misconduct investigator at UAF, and UAA Title IX Investigator Sarah Childress.

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The investigators in the Office of Equity and Compliance stand in front of the University Lake building. Photo credit: Cheyenne Mathews

The Daily News-Miner reported that Shipwash was found responsible for sexual misconduct at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Shortly after the misconduct allegations were reported, the UA General Counsel released a statement on checking references. Shipwash is longer at UAF.

Childress, who was appointed to the Title IX position, said there were several things that needed to be fixed within the Office of Equity and Compliance at her open forum in the spring. One of her biggest goals was preventing re-victimization of people who reported sexual misconduct.

“I talked to three separate women in the past two weeks that have come to me in tears because they have to answer the same questions over and over and over again with each different entity,” Childress had said at the open forum. “They’re being asked these questions by UPD, they’re being asked these questions by Residence Life, they’re being asked these questions by STAR, and then they don’t want to talk about it anymore. They don’t want to tell their same story over and over again.”

At her forum, Childress also said she would like to see, “a structure to that office, written expectations, protocols. We have a huge retention issue in that office, as I am the only one in the office at this point.”

 

Retention Problems Increase Processing Times

Kamahele said there are several reasons why a report takes longer than 60 days to process, including the complexity of the case, semester breaks, and reaching out to all the parties involved. Some of the remaining reasons deal with problems in retention: not enough staffing and turnover that causes someone else to restart an investigation.

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Childress and Prevention and Education Coordinator Bridget Coffou have been in the office the longest. They both started in June of 2017.

Since Childress was appointed, she has worked to address some of the concerns she voiced at her open forum.

“We are creating expectations for ourselves, creating processes, documentation, data across the board,” Childress said in an interview this month. “We are also, I would say, changing the face of the office. We are really trying to increase visibility.”

The office went from a staff of three to an office of five this year including a social work intern. Two new staff members were hired this summer: Deputy Civil Rights and Title IX Coordinator, Neil Best, and Deputy Title IX and Civil Rights Coordinator, April Stahl.

 

Retention problems can be attributed to what Kamahele calls the “fairly isolating” nature of working in Title IX.

“We’re dealing with highly confidential, very sensitive, but very traumatic type situations,” Kamahele said. “I mean we’re dealing with people who’ve experienced horrible things. We have to be strong so that we can help those people, but there is this secondary trauma. I mean the Title IX workers themselves, it’s like you still feel something. And there’s nobody you can talk to.”

Kamahele said the majority of the work done by the office is rarely recognized. While the office is responsible for investigating reports, the majority of the job is giving students resources or accommodations. The scorecards presented to the Board of Regents this year reflect that sentiment by stating “total number where resources/referral were offered” instead of total number of reports.

Many Title IX reports do not result in an investigation or a sanction. Gower said reports will not result in a sanction if the report is not a Title IX violation or the report is not in the jurisdiction of the university. The latter includes incidents where a student reports a sexual assault committed by someone who was not connected to the university.

Records obtained from the OCR show that 10 complaints of discrimination against the university have been made to the OCR directly between 2012 to November of 2017.

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