Title IX: New federal edicts govern university

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UA system leadership detailed the federal mandate intended to bring the university into Title IX compliance at a conference Monday, Feb. 20. The conference precluded the release of the full report by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights later in the week.

The “voluntary resolution agreement” signed by system President Jim Johnsen, summarizes the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment cases in the past few years and outlines required steps the university will now have to take in order to follow the law.

“The agreement we reached with OCR details a wide array of compliance issues, including 23 cases that exemplified problems across the system,” Johnsen said, admitting that cases were mishandled by the university.

The Office of Civil Rights reviewed how the UA system has handled cases involving sexual harassment and assault. The review of UA and dozens of other universities began in May of 2014. The university provided over 20 thousand documents and 274 sexual harassment or assault cases from 2011 to mid 2015, according to Johnsen.

In January of 2015, the UA system began their own review Title IX compliance issues in order to self-identify serious problems.

“That proactive step, allowed us to self-identify serious problems and start our own efforts to correct those problems right away,” Johnsen said.

The agreement between UA and the Office of Civil Rights covers many topics. The agreement enforces the creation of a student review committee. The Office will also be reviewing over 300 incidents from the past two years which the university attributes to more people reporting.

“We’re now getting better reporting,” UAS Chancellor Rick Caufield said. “Our hope then is that we’re going to be able to respond more effectively to the needs of the students.”

In terms of how the students and community can know if sanctions are being issued, UAA’s Director of Student Conduct and Ethical Development, Michael Votava, brought up the Clery Act.

“Under the Clery Act … whenever there’s an incident we’re able to issue a ‘timely warning,'” Votava said. “We issue timely warnings with every case that we feel there is a serious community threat.”

The act requires all universities that use federal financial aid programs to disclose information about crime on or near their campus.

“There is a difficult challenge in balancing transparency and confidentiality of the parties involved,” Thomas said. “You heard me report the number of expulsions and suspensions, I think that’s something that the university can and should do annually.”

Asked for comment, students did not express optimism that their needs would be met despite the changes.

“You would think that a university would provide a safe space for people who have been through these traumatic events and there would be some kind of justice to be had,” Jay Santiago, a psychology student, said. “It seems like the university is more focused on their public image rather than the safety of their students.”

This was echoed by another student.

“Some more responsibility on their end would be nice,” Fisheries student Colin McKenzie said. “It seems like up to this point they’ve been insulating themselves from these issues and playing them down. I understand transparency is an issue when it comes to confidentiality.”

McKenzie stated that they could still have transparency in the system and how it operates and how they’re going to take accountability in the future.

“I know some people like in close proximity, that have been victims of sexual assault,” Santiago said. “Some of these students feel that if they were to report [ offending students] nothing would happen anyway. So there is a combination of low student morale and the fact that they have no faith in the system. That’s probably why cases are as prevalent as they are here.”

Thomas brought up that UAF expelled 6 students and suspended 5 for sexual assault or harassment between July 2015 and Jan. 2017.

“We’ve done a lot, but it’s not enough,” Johnsen said. “We’re still looking to improve … we’re committed to promoting a culture of safety on all of our campuses.”

When asked about sanctions for offenders, UAF Chancellor Dana Thomas responded stating that UAF imposes interim measures like moving students out of residence halls or trespassing them from campus.

“We protect our students and community while maintaining a due process for our respondents,” Thomas said. “That’s a delicate balance, and it’s very much like the judicial system when they make a judgement as to whether to let somebody out on bail or not.”

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