Title IX: Community members voice discontent over results

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Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas addresses UAF students, staff and faculty during a forum Thursday evening in Wood Center. The forum was held to discuss the recent review released by the Office of Civil Rights outlining the university’s failures. Erin Granger/Sun Star

The university has spent years mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment, according to a review recently released by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The 32-page review outlined a long list of cases in which the university failed the provide adequate and timely responses to complaints of sexual assault, harassment and other Title IX infractions.

Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas and other university officials held a forum Thursday night to discuss the review with the university community.

“We have to start forward from now,” Thomas said. “If we could fix [past cases] we would. Too little, too late.”

The forum was attended by students, staff and faculty as well as members of the Fairbanks community. Many expressed concerns about how the university will change their system to better address the continuous issue of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses.

“I am very heavy-hearted after reading every word of the report from the OCR,” Kayt Sunwood, a sociology professor, said. “Because some of us here very adamantly were telling administrators exactly the violations that now, after all this time, the OCR has found and demanded improvement on.”

“It just makes me wonder how we can ever trust again,” she said.

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Students, staff, faculty and Fairbanks community members gathered in Wood Center Thursday evening for a forum with Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas to discuss the university’s mishandling of Title IX cases. Thomas was joined by Police Chief Steve Goetz, Dean of Students Laura McCollough and Title IX Director Kevin Calderara (not pictured). Erin Granger/ Sun Star Photo credit: Erin Granger

In attendance were members of advocacy and counseling centers both on and off campus.

Kara Carlson, an advocate at UAF Resource and Advocacy Center and coordinator at the Interior Center for Non-Violent Living sees the need for change in how UAF handles these cases.

“We provide services to student faculty and staff here on campus,” Carlson said. “That being said, I’m also not a university employee so if the system starts failing somebody, I have no problem speaking up.”

Bonnie Brody, director of counseling at the Health and Counseling Center, feels there needs to a shift in culture altogether. Of the women who come into the counseling center, more than 50 percent have at some time been a victim of sexual assault, Brody said.

“They are terrified of going to administration, bureaucracy, police because they have imbued into their own consciousness the feeling that they are helpless,” Brody said. “That they will be punished for what has happened to them. The whole culture needs to change. These women and men need to feel supported.”

At one point, Mark Oldmixon, director of DRAW, asked the panel what they would do differently in past cases, specifically the Wattum case from September.

Dean of Students Laura McCollough’s response caused a distinct stir in the audience.

“We wish that it hadn’t happened,” McCollough said. “I wish the complainant in that case could have felt better about what she received from the university.”

Jason Foreman, a biology student, said he attended the event after reading an Alaska Dispatch News article about the Office of Civil Right’s review.

“The president’s email that he sent out really just seemed like a lot of political ass-covering type stuff,” Foreman said. “And then I read the article and I was like ‘oh, the university system has been really backwards for a long time and negatively effecting people’s lives for a long time.’”

Foreman said that he was thought it was likely that the university would make changes.

“I think now that they have their feet to the fire they’re going to enact some positive change,” Foreman said.

For Sunwood, these years of mishandling could have been prevented.

“So many of the violations that OCR is calling the university on are things that some of us have been saying since many many years ago,” Sunwood said. “Who knows what could have been prevented if we’d been in compliance and done it right for all these years.”

Sunwood said that as people talk about Title IX problems and read the reports they will start holding the university accountable.

Jeffery Benowitz, a professor in tectonics, was cautiously hopeful.

“As town hall forums go—I thought it was very successful.” Benowitz said with a qualifier. “It was clear there was still a little double speak”

Benowitz was referring to when Regent Davis spoke up stating that when the Board hired Jim Johnsen as the UA president they told him that there was “no budget restraints” when it came to student safety. After Johnsen was hired the Community Service Officer program was cut which Benowitz brought up during the town hall.

“Clearly there is a misconnect,” he said.

While some students attended the event, Shirlie Morin, a student studying social work, wished more students showed up.

“I’ve been to many forums over the last few years and they lack student participation,” Morin said. “They want to hear student feedback but they aren’t figuring out a good way for students here to give their feedback.”

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(From left to right) UAF Police Chief Steve Goetz, Dean of Students Laura McCollough, Interim Chancellor Dana Thomas and Title IX Director Kevin Calderara addressed a group of students, staff and faculty at a forum regarding the recent Office of Civil Rights review. The review covered the university’s mishandling of sexual assault and harassment cases. Erin Granger/ Sun Star Photo credit: Erin Granger

Morin stated that students might feel more comfortable in smaller group or individual conversations.

“I think it’s really important for students to realize … that there have been a lot of changes, there have been a lot of improvements,” Morin said. “There have been a lot of really great improvements but we still have a long way to go … I just hope that that will continue to happen, especially with the new chancellor coming in next year.”

While unrest was prevalent throughout the forum, Thomas said he was hopeful for the future.

“This is an incredibly important issue,” Thomas said after the forum. “And we have to keep the conversation going.”

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