Title IX dominates chancellor’s forum

While Chancellor Thomas’ student forum held Sunday evening was open for discussion of all subjects, audience members’ concern and anger focused on the Title IX office’s mishandling of sexual assault and rape cases at the university.

The forum was held in the Hess Recreation area at 7 p.m. and was attended by students and faculty alike. Chagrin and frustration was expressed, spurred by the recent public comment made by Jessie Wattum, accuser in the recent Bartlett hall sexual assault case, regarding UAF’s lack of support for survivors of sexual assault.

Many comments directly referenced this case, only to be ultimately left unanswered.

“Even though the victim herself didn’t live in the dorms, her sister does, and to move the suspect back without informing the victim or her family is in my opinion completely unacceptable,” Alexis Peppin, a Bartlett resident and fellow student said.

“That investigation is currently underway and so I cannot speak to specific cases currently under investigation. Sorry,” Chancellor Thomas responded.

Officials defended their action to move the suspect back into Bartlett dorm by saying the suspect was not confirmed to be a threat.

“Who makes that decision and how do you decide whether someone is a threat or not?” Sheryce Marshall, a student studying social work, asked Thomas.

Though Thomas did not directly reference Wattum’s case, he explained the decisions behind claiming a suspect is not a threat. He said living situations of the complainant and respondent, evidence and interviews are all taken into account, among other elements.

Melissa Clark, public relations director for ASUAF, and Colby Freel, student government president, asked about the policy for keeping complainants informed during the Title IX investigation process.

“What policies guide the notification of victims or residents of the return of the respondent to the residence hall or the UAF community,” Freel asked.

“We try to notify complainants and respondents involved in the cases when there are sanction changes or if there is an imminent threat to the campus community,” Dean of Students Laura McCollough said.

McCollough then began discussing timely notifications in reference to the gunman incident on campus Saturday night.

Both McCollough and Thomas emphasized the need in Title IX investigations for fairness for the complainant as well as the respondent, defending their decision to move the suspect from the Wattum incident back into Bartlett hall.

Sarah Day, an art student, brought up the same point, questioning the length of time the university should take to conclude its Title IX investigations.

“The federal mandate for the length of time Title IX has to review, investigate and close cases is within a semesters length of time. They recommend 60 days as an appropriate amount of time,” Day said. “However many of your students have shared that their Title IX cases took six months to a year to be concluded, mine took nine months. What is UAF’s policy on how long their cases are to be open, and do you feel UAF is appropriately staffed to close cases and act in an appropriate amount of time?”

Thomas, as well as McCollough, mentioned multiple times that the Title IX process is a complicated one, but did not elaborate on the steps involved.

Thomas spoke highly of the university’s prevention programs, such as the Green Dot training recently introduced to UAF as well as the Haven and AlcoholEdu training required for new students and employees this year. In the discussion of alcohol as a factor in sexual assault cases, Thomas received immediate comment from audience members.

“I would just like to clarify that whether alcohol is involved or not, sexual assault is never the victim’s fault,” Jeff Benowitz, a lab manager for the Geophysical institute, said after taking the microphone.

Among other issues discussed during the forum were the tuition raise of five percent to be implemented across UA campuses in the fall of 2017, the need for UAF to have a permanent chancellor and ideas for generating revenue for the UA including the funds raised through a marijuana tax.

It was also announced by Vice Chancellor and Executive Officer Kari Burrell that the CSO program will be re-implemented as soon as possible. The program will return at the latest by the fall of 2017, said Burrell.

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