UA found to have mishandled sexual assault cases, agrees to improve Title IX procedures

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A Title IX compliance review put forth by the U.S. Department of Education found the University of Alaska to be responsible for several Title IX violations including unclear procedures for filing complaints, investigations of several sexual assault complaints that were not completed or never even initiated, improper record-keeping and insufficient training of Title IX personnel prior to the 2016-17 school year.

“As a student first, I was greatly dismayed when I read the cases identified by the compliance review. While these may not be representative of every incident, there is no margin for error for a university in ensuring student safety, and the cases therein showed clear and too-frequent failure at multiple levels of the university,” Sam Erickson, USUAA president, said. “As a student government official, I have been aware of the ongoing compliance review since 2015, and while the difference between a review and an investigation may seem minor, in this case it is important.”

Erickson also noted that the responsibility to provide safety for others rests on the shoulders of not just those in leadership roles.

“As emphasized by the Voluntary Resolution Agreement that the system entered into absent any threat of sanction, I do believe that UA is committed to addressing this problem. However, that is no excuse for past failure, and it means that our job — as students, and your elected representatives — is to keep up the pressure, and to always remind the university that a safe educational environment is a right for all.”

The 32-page report that summarizes the results of the three-year review was posted on UAA’s website on Feb. 23.

For the 2013-14 academic year, UAA’s average case processing time was 97 days with the longest case taking 403 days. Case processing times did improve at the university level in the 2014-2015 school year.

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UA President Jim Johnsen signed a voluntary resolution on Feb. 17 stating the universities Title IX procedures will be improved.

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“While I commemorate the work that President Johnson is doing, it is important to recognize that the UA System has a lot of work to do when it comes to campus safety and sexual assault prevention. While I do believe that reopening these cases is essential, it is also incredibly disheartening that these cases have not been previously dealt with,” Moira Pyhala, a political science student at UAA and member of UAA’s Generation Action club, said.

The agreement focused on 12 areas of improvement, including the reopening of 23 sexual assault cases identified in the compliance report for having been mishandled.

“While it is unfortunate that the re-opening of these cases came only after pressure from the federal government, I am pleased to see the university taking another look at these cases. The mistrust as a result of widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases all across the US creates major mistrust between students and their universities; UAA taking steps to demonstrate their dedication to protecting students is a move towards rebuilding that trust. In the future, I hope that Jim Johnson —as well as future administrations — ensure that cases are dealt with properly in the first place,” Robert Hockema, a political science student at UAA, a member of the Generation Action club at UAA and a former employee of UAA Residence Life, said.

UA has already been implementing improvements in Title IX offices including an amnesty policy that seeks to protect students who report sexual assaults in cases involving drugs or alcohol, increased staffing and access to more information and training.

“I do believe that there are several other actions that the University of Alaska could implement in order to ensure the safety of their students, including making sexual assault prevention courses such as the “Bystander Intervention” training that the Student Health and Counseling Center puts on mandatory for students who live on campus, along with installing cameras in all of the UA campus parking lots,” Pyhala said.

Much of the work done to bring sexual assault and sex education awareness has been promoted through student-led clubs and organizations on campus.

“It is my hope that the university continues to support the work of groups who are working on this issues such as Generation Action-Students for Reproductive Justice, DVSA Coalition, Student Health and Counseling Center, and USUAA,” Pyhala said. “I would like to point out that most of the efforts to bring sexual assault prevention to light has been carried out by student-led groups. It should be known that as long as these issues exist, the students at UAA will still push for justice and that our voices should be heard when it comes to creating these policies.”

UA will continue to be monitored as new procedures are implemented and improvements are made. As per the agreement the university will be required to submit progress reports. If terms of the agreement are not met the agency may initiate administrative or legal enforcement.