UAF addresses sexual assault through town hall forum

Danny Fisher / Editor in Chief

Students, staff, Fairbanks citizens and past UAF students gathered in the Wood center multilevel lounge on Oct. 21 for a town hall meeting on sexual assult. - Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

Students, staff, Fairbanks citizens and past UAF students gathered in the Wood center multilevel lounge on Oct. 21 for a town hall meeting on sexual assult. – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

More than a hundred Fairbanks community members, UAF students and university staff members gathered in the multi-level lounge of the Wood Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday to participate in a town hall forum about Title IX and UAF’s plans to improve processing of sexual misconduct cases on campus.  The event, which featured speakers Interim Chancellor Mike

Powers, Title IX Coordinator Mae Marsh, Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga and UAF Police Department Chief Keith Mallard, included an explanation of terminology used when speaking about sexual assault on campus, presentation of avenues through which misconduct issues are handled, and a discussion forum that lasted until just after 8:30 p.m.

Powers spoke about how UAF has been taking action to improve campus safety.  He cited efforts by the Student Activities Office (SAO) and New Student Orientation (NSO) program to educate students about their rights and responsibilities concerning sex.  The NSO program now incorporates modules addressing these subjects as well, ensuring that students come into the university system with a basis of knowledge, according to the panel.

The Green Dot Program, a national educational program that teaches participants how to prevent or de-escalate violent situations, is also paving the way for a safer campus, according to Mallard.  About 60 students have gone through a Green Dot training program at UAF since its implementation during last school year.

The officials who spoke agreed that in order for meaningful changes to be made, there must be a cultural shift.  It is not only the responsibility of the individual to keep his or herself safe, but the responsibility of the community to care for one another, Mallard said.

"What will happen to those staff who fail to act, who fail to report," a student asks. Police Chief Keith Mallard responded to this question that it was the student bodies' responsibility to hold their administators accountable. - Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

“What will happen to those staff who fail to act, who fail to report,” a student asks. Police Chief Keith Mallard responded to this question that it was the student bodies’ responsibility to hold their administrators accountable. – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

“We have to start looking at our culture,” Marsh said. “What cultural message says that it’s OK for someone to take advantage of someone else? We’re trying to shift that culture and that will be part of what we’re looking at here at UAF.”

On Tuesday night, SAO hosted a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” in Schiable auditorium.  The documentary film provides firsthand accounts by survivors of sexual assault accompanied by statistics about reported cases and the disciplinary measures taken against alleged offenders.  Powers attended the showing and answered questions from the viewers.

“[The film] actually made me more afraid as to what would happen if I were to be assaulted on campus,” Jessie Wattum, a student, said at the town hall.

Attendees were given nearly two hours to raise questions, address concerns, and offer commentary on the way the university handles sexual misconduct.

“UAF is definitely a safe campus, but there is a drinking culture and there is a hook up culture… I think that is the root of the problem,” a student who identified herself as a junior at UAF said.  Furthermore, the marketing and education outreach done by the university do not reach enough people, she said.

Others agreed that alcohol is a significant factor in sexual misconduct on campus.

How to best educate community members about sexual misconduct was discussed several more times during the forum.

"I have little sisters that go here and I want them to know what consent is... Having flowcharts in the bathroom stalls about what consent is, that's not enough." - Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

“I have little sisters that go here and I want them to know what consent is… Having flowcharts in the bathroom stalls about what consent is, that’s not enough.” – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

“We all know what rape is,” Stephanie Maggard, acupuncturist and oriental medicine practitioner in the Fairbanks community, said.  “We don’t need it defined for us for the hundredth time.”

Speakers asked what measures UAF would take to prevent victim-blaming, (the act of projecting responsibility for sexual crimes on the person the crime was committed against) what disciplinary measures staff and faculty members would face if found to have permitted sexual misconduct to go without sanctioning and who holds them accountable, and whether funding for Title IX services will continue in coming years.

“When the chancellor’s proposed [legislation that would ensure continued funding of Title IX investigator positions at UA campuses] I said ‘put them in the budget.'” James Johnsen, UA systems president said.  “We’re not waiting for the legislature.  Fund them and fill them.”

“Proactive accountability,” is a guiding principle within University of Alaska schools, according to Johnsen.  He, along with the Board of Regents, takes responsibility for the initiation of a third-party investigation of UAF in coming months.  The investigation will be conducted by Jeffry Feldman, a lawyer based in Anchorage.  Results of the investigation will be published near the beginning of the year, according to Johnsen.

UAF underwent a Title IX investigation from the Office for Civil Rights during the 2014-2015 school year, which caused the university to look closer at its policies and practices concerning sexual misconduct, according to Marmian Grimes, UAF’s public information officer.

The forum follows Powers’ Tuesday morning university address email, in which the interim chancellor wrote about sexual misconduct on college campuses nationwide, and UAF’s own failure to discipline students for violations of the student code of conduct.

Chancellor Michael Powers opens the Oct. 21 town hall on sexual assult with an overview of what would be discussed that night. Students, both current and former, staff and Fairbanks citizens gathered in the Wood center multilevel lounge that night to hear the chancellor and other staff talk about the epidemic of sexual assult that UAF has faced. - Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

Chancellor Michael Powers opens the Oct. 21 town hall on sexual assault with an overview of what would be discussed that night. Students, both current and former, staff and Fairbanks citizens gathered in the Wood center multi-level lounge that night to hear the chancellor and other staff talk about the epidemic of sexual assault that UAF has faced. – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

“For years, we failed to follow our own student discipline policies for the most serious violations of the student code of conduct: assault, burglary and rape,” Powers said in the email.  “We investigated reports of rape, and often took informal action like removing the accused from dorms or campus. But, until recently, students were not being suspended or expelled for sexual assault, or for any major violation of our code of conduct.”

In 2015, 44 reports of varying degrees of sexual assault were made to UAF, according to Powers.  During that time there have been two suspensions and one expulsion.  UAF only received 42 reports of sexual misconduct over the four years preceding 2015.

Three forums will be held next week concerning Title IX and sexual assault on campus.  They will be held in the Wood Center multi-level lounge from 1-2 p.m. on Tuesday Oct. 27 and Thursday Oct. 29, and at 6 p.m. on Wednesday Oct. 28.

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