University of Alaska students in Juneau raise alarm over campus response to sexual assault

The University of Alaska Southeast campus in Juneau on Monday, March. 4, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

The University of Alaska Southeast’s student news publication says the Juneau campus and its Title IX office aren’t doing enough to protect students from sexual assault.

It’s led to student outcry and prompted campus officials to bring their concerns to the university’s Board of Regents. 

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination — including sexual violence — in educational programs and activities in the U.S. All public and private schools, school districts, colleges and universities must comply with its regulations.

In mid-February, students from the publication, The Whalesong, wrote in an editorial that the Juneau campus wasn’t protecting students under that law.

AJ Schultz, the publication’s student editor, said the editorial was a response to a long-running problem.

“There are so many instances of Title IX systems failing individuals and groups at this university,” he said. “I, in my role, was just bringing that forward and trying to fairly assess all the systems at play that kind of created that environment.”

The editorial included stories from multiple students who say the university mishandled their reports of sexual assault, and in turn, made them feel unsafe to share reports in the future. And since the editorial came out, students have been sharing their stories on social media and pressuring the university for change at a series of listening sessions held on campus.  

“Me — and everybody else on Whalesong and everybody else who has been coming to the listening sessions — we’re just trying to push mainly the Board of Regents to create stronger support systems across the entire university network that exists for survivors trying to go through the grievance process safely for their physical and mental health,” he said. 

Dr. Aparna Palmer took over as chancellor of UAS last summer, and Mitzi Bolaños Anderson became the school’s Title IX coordinator in October. The two have been at the forefront of the campus response to the student outcry. 

Beginning in early February, the campus began hosting the Title IX listening sessions. Palmer said they’re a chance to hear student’s concerns and work to address them.

“I do think that these are issues that probably have been kind of collecting under the surface for quite a while, it definitely precedes me,” she said.

Palmer said students have made it clear they don’t think one employee overseeing the Title IX office is enough. They’ve also called for more engaging Title IX training and a stronger security or police presence on campus.

Palmer shared the student’s concerns regarding UA Title IX policies at a Board of Regents meeting in late February. She said the campus plans to hire a deputy Title IX coordinator to help Bolaños Anderson in her work. That person will begin this month.  

“By no means are we done in terms of how we already responded there is more to do,” she said. “I come to you today as chancellor to ask for your continued support and advocacy in regard to Title IX.”

During the meeting, UA President Pat Pitney said she takes the UAS students’ concerns seriously as the UA system continues working to better its Title IX policies and response. 

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said the UA system had badly failed students and staff who were sexually harassed and assaulted. 

“This was a major topic for the board for several years and we have made tremendous progress,” she said. “They are challenging and we want to continue to improve on the progress we’ve made over the last several years.”

In 2019, a campus climate survey estimated that more than 4,000 students across Alaska campuses had experienced some form of sexual assault — either on or off campus — since enrolling. 

Still, local experts like Mandy Cole, the executive director of AWARE, Juneau’s domestic violence support organization, said rising reports of sexual assault don’t necessarily mean campuses have gotten more dangerous – it just means more people are coming forward with their stories.

“My answer is that it’s always been there — it’s always been there. It’s always been just as bad as it is today, forever. And the only way it gets better is if we talk about it,” she said.

Palmer, the UAS chancellor, said the listening sessions will continue in the coming months. Bolaños Anderson said the changes already taking place likely wouldn’t have happened if students hadn’t shared their concerns.

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