The University of Alaska has entered into a Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. In February of this year, President Jim Johnsen received a letter from the OCR advising the university of the resolution of the compliance review system.
This agreement results from OCR’s review of the university’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents. According to UAA’s November 2016 Title IX Scorecard, 67 percent of faculty and staff had taken online or in-person Title IX training. The scorecard also indicated that 21 percent of students had been trained using in-person training at new student orientation and resident hall, club and organization meetings.
Ben Morton, Dean of Students, worked at two previous universities where Haven Training was implemented on their campuses.
“[The UA System] fell short in some areas, recognized that and worked to overcome it, and the VRA, through the OCR, is our roadmap for how to do that and how to make sure we do a better job. I believe the Haven Training kind of came out of one of those points in the VRA, which was we need to do a better job communicating, behavior, as well as informing and educating people about their rights,” Morton said.
The College of Health sent a letter out to their students several weeks ago with a link to opt out of the Haven Training.
Jeff Jessee, Dean of the College of Health, said that a number of faculty within the college have expertise in sexual assault and domestic violence. When they saw the survey that went with the mandatory training for students, they were “quite concerned” for victims to be “retraumatized or triggered” by some of the material.
The letter from the College of Health states, “This training is important, but it contains deeply personal and highly sensitive questions. These questions can make you feel uncomfortable. They may generate strong emotions. They may make you recall traumatic incidents that have happened to you and your loved ones — incidents that none of us should ever be subjected to. Please remember that violence is never the victim’s fault. Never.”
Jessee said that they took their concerns to the dean’s meeting, and people understood that there was a legitimate concern. Jessee says that the administration is “definitely committed to the issue.” They had contacted Mary Gower, Chief Title IX Officer, who had already been working on an opt out link.
Morton has been logging all of his calls, emails and walk-ins from students anonymously in regards to the training. He wants to work with Haven to improve specific parts of the training that were problematic to students. He hopes to have this as a yearly mandatory training.
“Whether or not that’s Haven every year, or Haven plus other things, or how we do that, I think that’s still up in the air. I think that’s something that can be discussed when we get through all this and really see where we land,” Morton said.
Since the College of Health sent out their letter, the College of Education, College of Arts and Sciences and other colleges have taken the letter and sent it out to their students as well.
Jessee understands that it’s important to address the potential harm that the survey could cause, but also recognizes why the university made the training mandatory.
“It’s critical that this training can be universally available to students, and one of the concerns is, if it was totally voluntary, the students who most need it might be the ones least likely to take it,” Jessee said.
Jade Ariah, art student, sent an email to Morton last week after hearing feedback from her friends as to why they did not want to take the mandatory Title IX training. They felt that the training was highly insensitive and triggering to victims of sexual assault.
“Once I had actually started engaging in the community and talking to people who were in tears, upset about this training and had started it, I just felt really uncomfortable and felt violated by having to answer these questions and forced to go through this process,” Ariah said.
In her sociology course, Ariah and the class had discussed the training ethically. There was discussion whether or not the survey at the beginning would have passed an ethical test.
Nelta Edwards is a professor in the sociology department; she didn’t know that the training was mandatory for students until one of hers came to her telling her that she was triggered by the training.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And the student said, ‘Well, we have to take it or they won’t let us register.’ I knew nothing about it,” Edwards said. “I had a different student say to me, ‘You know, I’m about to graduate. Being forced to take a training that is hard for me to read about, and if I don’t do it i will be punished, it makes me feel like a victim again. I don’t have control over my circumstances.’”
Edwards doesn’t believe that the training was implemented with bad intentions towards students, but believes there should have been more to make it educational and appropriate.
“The Haven Training is inadequate, especially for the scope and the scale of the problem that we have. My main concern with the Haven Training is it is potentially harmful to victims. We know that a large number of women have already been assaulted, many of them before they get to campus,” Edwards said. “We have a lot of students who are taking this training who may have never spoken to anybody about their abuse. There they are, sitting in front of a computer, being presented with really explicit material, in an isolated setting.”
The training was implemented by statewide and was mandatory at all UA college campuses.
“It’s training, it’s not education,” Edwards said.
The training was an “off the shelf product,” according to Jessee, which has been used by 1,800 other institutions.
“I think the timing made it difficult to customize the product. I mean, you’re buying a commercial product, you don’t have the luxury of modifying it however you would like. I’m sure the board was weighing the consequences of delay against having to use a canned product that couldn’t be modified,” Jessee said.
Title IX training was one of the sections that the OCR highlighted as problematic. By Dec. 30 and by the same date in 2018 and 2019, the UA System is required to provide documentation to OCR demonstrating that they have provided a form of Title IX training to their employees.
“This is our first shot at this. Usually when you do something for the first time, there’s room for improvement,” Morton said. “There will be room for improvement here. I think the real test of this is how we implement this moving forward and what we learned and how we do a better job.”
Standing Together Against Rape states that about 59 percent of adult women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both, in their lifetime. Over 50 percent of adult women in the Municipality of Anchorage have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both, in their lifetime.
“We’re all hoping that this is just the beginning of a conversation,” Jessee said. “We’ll just have to continue the work.”