UA Voluntary Resolution Agreement
Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights
In February 2017 the University of Alaska entered into a Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. This agreement results from OCR’s review of the university’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents affecting students and employees on UA campuses. This agreement details a wide array of compliance issues, including 23 cases that exemplify problems across the system ranging from very serious failures to documentation issues, and it outlines specific steps we will take to improve safety and the campus climate throughout the University of Alaska system.
The issues cited in the VRA range from very serious failures to minor documentation issues. But OCR also notes that “the UA system has taken several significant actions to remedy noncompliance with Title IX.” In January 2015 we commenced our own review of sexual assault cases at all three universities. That allowed us to self-identify serious problems and start our efforts to correct those problems. In October 2015, we became the only university in the country to publicly admit our shortcomings in this area. We have been, and continue to be, committed to leading in addressing sexual harassment and assault at the university.
First report of the Voluntary Resolution Agreement due May 1
When the university entered into a Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) over handling of cases of sexual harassment and assault and preventative efforts by our universities, a plan for the nine action items with a May 1 deadline was established, as well as planning for the future deadlines out to December 2019.
The first reporting deadline May 1 covers a variety of areas including the appointment of a systemwide Senior Title IX administrator, a new draft notice of non-discrimination, draft policy and regulation changes, Title IX training, dissemination of information regarding sex discrimination, a plan for climate checks, coordination with local law enforcement, new procedures for placement of students with other entities, and documentation of redress for 23 cases identified by OCR.
Systemwide Senior Title IX Administrator - Mary Gower is the Chief Title IX Officer, reporting directly to the president. As Chief Title IX Officer, Gower has primary responsibility for coordinating the university's efforts to comply with and carry out its responsibilities under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in all operations of the university and retaliation against those who report violations of any right or privilege secured by Title IX.
Notice of Nondiscrimination – Once the university receives notice that the proposed new notice of nondiscrimination has been approved by OCR a 30-day deadline will begin for documenting that the new notice has been included on all websites and university publications. Inserts can be used pending reprinting of publications. All university employees and departments are asked to assist in ensuring that all websites and publications are updated accordingly and documentation shared with Title IX offices.
Revised Title IX Policies & Procedures - In order to have the new policies in place for the start of the fall semester, revised language will be proposed to the Regents at the June meeting. Governance groups and university administration are currently reviewing and providing feedback on the draft policies.
Title IX Training - All employees involved in processing, investigating, adjudicating and or resolving complaints of sex discrimination are attending required training that will be provided through ATIXA to meet conditions specified in the VRA.
Dissemination of information regarding sex discrimination - UAF is drafting a pamphlet on behalf of the system, which will be updated for each campus as necessary. It will be distributed to students and employees for general Title IX education purposes, and contains information on how and where to file a complaint, contact information for Title IX and information on interim measures and opportunities for counseling and assistance.
Climate Survey - The VRA requires that we complete climate surveys through 2019. The first survey is anticipated to go into the field this October; work is in progress to facilitate that timeline.
Coordination with local law enforcement - For the May 1 reporting deadline, Title IX offices have communicated with law enforcement departments across the state informing them of new requirements for improved coordination between law enforcement and addressing protocols for referring allegations of sexual violence as well as sharing information and conducting contemporaneous investigations.
New procedures for placement of students with other entities - New procedures are being prepared for student placement with other entities for internships, clinical programs or other off-campus programs providing information on where and how to file a complaint and ensuring that any sponsors or operators understand Title IX obligations.
Redress for 23 cases identified by OCR - Each of the 23 cases has specific actions that must be undertaken by the May 1 deadline to redress the cases. The cases will have been re-assessed and actions taken accordingly by the reporting deadline.
University moving forward on terms of Voluntary Resolution Agreement
Last month we announced that the university entered into a Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) over handling of cases of sexual harassment and assault and preventative efforts by our universities. We also announced that Mary Gower has been appointed Chief Title IX Officer.
As directed by the VRA, Gower will be convening a Statewide Title IX Task Force to address best practices for handling complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence and patterns or systemic concerns that arise during the resolution of such complaints. There are many components of the VRA that must be met by May 1, and/or started immediately for submission to OCR later in the year. Here is a brief overview of some of the major initiatives which will impact our universities in coming months.
Revised Title IX Policies & Procedures - This has multiple actions and points of approval including governance and the Board of Regents. This is on a rapid timeline; revised language will be proposed to the Regents at the June meeting.
Climate Survey - The VRA requires that we complete climate surveys through 2019. The first survey is anticipated to go into the field this October; work is in progress to facilitate that timeline.
Training – Gower and the Title IX Coordinators are working on multi-point plans regarding Title IX training for university students and employees.
New policy reforms procedures for sexual discrimination, harassment and assault response
A new chapter in Board of Regents policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Discrimination passed unanimously during the board’s June meeting, and the changes to how the University of Alaska has committed to handling reports of sexual discrimination and harassment are substantial.
For the first time a single policy provides clear guidance for students, employees and external entities alike, including definitions, standards of conduct, reporting information and contacts, established timelines, equitable processes for complainants and respondents and a clear appeals process.
As part of the Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) the new policy addresses 30 areas of concern that the OCR identified during their review of the university. It puts the university in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Alaska Statute 18.80 and due process of law.
The university must respond to reports of prohibited conduct with measures designed to stop the behavior, prevent its recurrence and remediate any hostile environment it caused. The policy and regulations describe in detail how and when that happens, who is responsible, and what actions can be taken to appeal the decisions.
While the following overview provides a summary of major elements of the new policy, all employees and students are encouraged to read Policy & Regulation Chapter 01.04 to ensure they understand their rights, roles and responsibilities under the new policy and regulation.
Single policy for all parties and environments
One of OCR’s biggest concerns was the lack of a single policy to address all forms of sex discrimination that applies to employees, students and third parties alike. Prior to this revision student and employee policies were separate, and third parties – contractors, visitors, alumni, etc. – were not covered in policy at all. The new policy replaces the portions of student and employee policies that addressed sex discrimination. It also clarifies that the procedures apply to everyone at all university facilities, programs and activities on or off campus – including internships, travel programs and remote sites – and online environments.
Relationship with criminal investigations
The university is not the legal system, and Title IX investigations and criminal processes occur separately. The new policy describes the relationship between criminal investigations and Title IX investigations but clarifies that one does not influence the other. A case closed finding in criminal proceedings cannot bear positively or negatively on the findings of a Title IX investigation. Additionally, different standards of evidence are employed in criminal and Title IX investigations. The preponderance of evidence standard, defined in Board of Regents regulation as “more than likely than not that alleged conduct occured,” is used in Title IX investigations. The preponderance of evidence standard is typically described as 50 percent plus a feather. This is a less challenging standard than the legal system which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction. Violation of the university’s policy will result in discipline of the offending party, including the possibility of separation from the university. Criminal prosecution takes place independently of any university-imposed disciplinary proceeding.
Role of Title IX Coordinators
Central to the system is each university’s Title IX coordinator whose duties include communicating with all members of the community regarding Title IX, ensuring institutional compliance, conducting Title IX training, providing information on how individuals may access their rights, and responding to any complaint or report. In this capacity the Title IX coordinator oversees the investigation and resolution of any alleged misconduct, directs the provision of any remedial measures, and monitors the administration of any related appeal.
Investigative timelines established
A key addition is the establishment of a 60-day investigative timeline. The Title IX investigator will have 50 days to prepare their final report and forward the findings to the appropriate disciplinary authority such as the dean of students or human resources office, who will then have 10 days to make a determination. The timeline may be extended with good cause.
There is no time limit on reporting sexual harassment or assault. Individuals who learn of instances of gender discrimination, harassment or assault are encouraged to report it promptly, regardless of when in the past it occurred.
A complainant or respondent wishing to appeal the investigation or findings can submit an appeal to the Title IX coordinator within 5 calendar days of receiving notice of the outcome of the investigation. Disciplinary proceedings would pause until the appeal is resolved. Steps for the process are outlined in Board of Regents regulations.
Amnesty from sanctions
In order to encourage students to make reports of sexual harassment or assault, the university will provide amnesty for conduct that would otherwise warrant minor sanctions under the Student Code of Conduct, such as underage drinking or prohibited drug use.
Responsible employee designation
Another key addition is the explicit designation of employees as “responsible employees.” At the University of Alaska that includes all staff, all faculty and Residence Life student employees except confidential or other student employees.
Confidential resources include campus mental health counselors, pastoral counselors, social workers, psychologists or other persons with a professional license requiring confidentiality who are working within the capacity of that license. The counselor-client relationship is respected, and confidentiality ensured, so that students will seek the help they need.
Responsible employees must report any sexual or gender-based discrimination, regardless of who it involves, to the Title IX coordinator within twenty-four hours. The report must contain all relevant details about the alleged sexual misconduct that the student or another person has shared. This includes the names of the alleged perpetrator (if known), the student who experienced the alleged sexual misconduct, other students involved in the alleged sexual misconduct, as well as relevant facts, including the date, time, and location. The school will need to determine what occurred and resolve the situation.
Consistent reporting of sexual misconduct to the Title IX coordinator is necessary because it allows the university to offer interim services such as counseling, medical care, class schedule changes, and housing options. It also allows for tracking predatory behavior, understanding risky areas of campus, preventing future misconduct and ensuring student safety.
Annual Title IX training required
To ensure compliance with reporting obligations, responsible employees must train annually on Title IX and the school’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures. If you have not taken the required Title IX training you can attend an online session through Haven accessible through UAOnline.
New policy and regulation alone will not prevent instances of discrimination, harassment or assault, but improvements to handling, tracking and response to any reports, clear instructions for reporting violations, the explicitly shared responsibility of all members of the university, and the true commitment to monitoring and improving the campus environment related to sexual harassment and assault are huge steps in making UA’s campuses safer and more responsive than ever.
Title IX in 2017 - VRA overview
The University of Alaska has worked to implement dramatic changes this year in the way we respond to, track, and train our community about sexual harassment prevention and sexual violence. Guided by the terms of the Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the university system is addressing and correcting Title IX compliance issues. The VRA outlined specific steps to improve safety and the campus climate throughout the University of Alaska system. Title IX staff and campus leadership have made those changes, and are implementing systemic improvements in many critical areas.
OCR’s review of the University of Alaska system began in May 2014 with the university providing more than 20,000 documents, including 274 sexual harassment and sexual assault files from 2011 to mid-2015. OCR identified a wide array of action items which the university committed to address and report on in regular compliance reports. The final report for 2017 is being delivered to OCR this week.
Highlights of 2017 VRA compliance efforts (See chart for further information)
- Title IX Coordinators and the newly appointed Chief Title IX Officer received specialized
training for responding to sexual harassment complaints, investigating complaints,
and improving campus climate. The Title IX Coordinators and Chief Title IX Officer
- A systemwide Title IX Taskforce with representation from a broad spectrum of departments
meets monthly to discuss best practices for improving campus climate and addressing
systemic concerns. Documentation of the meetings is required for 2017 as well as in
2018 and 2019.
- A new Notice of Nondiscrimination was drafted, approved by OCR and added to all university
publications, websites and other materials for student or public use. Examples of
updates with the new notice were submitted in September.
- A new section of Board of Regents policy (P.01-04) was drafted addressing 30 specific
areas that OCR wanted clarified or stated in policy, including grievance procedures,
deadlines and other clear and specific information covering students, employees and
third parties. The policy was approved by the Board of Regents in June. Pending final
approval by OCR, the policy may be revised slightly and will be widely shared.
- Regular and adjunct faculty, regular staff (responsible employees), Residence Life
student employees, degree-seeking students, exchange students and students living
on campus were provided mandatory Title IX training. Documentation that the university
has provided required Title IX training must also be submitted in 2018 and 2019.
- Student committees were formed at each university and charged with providing recommendations
to campus leadership to ensure that students understand their rights under Title IX
including how to report possible violations, and for recommending strategies to improve
the effectiveness procedures, support services and resources.
- A climate survey was administered in October and its results will guide necessary
prevention, outreach and responses for issues that must be addressed in order to provide
an environment that is safe and supportive to all students and in compliance with
Title IX. Climate checks also will be required in 2018 and 2019 academic years.
- Letters and/or Memorandums of Agreement or Understanding were sent to law enforcement
agencies in communities with UA campuses to improve communication and coordination
with the university and address protocols and procedures for referrals or contemporaneous
- New procedures were put into place for any students placed with other entities, such
as internships, clinical programs or other off-campus programs, to ensure a clear
understanding of Title IX and to assure that sponsors of any activity involving students
will take no action that would be prohibited by Title IX. A tracking report of any
incidents was submitted. Reporting on the placement of students in outside entities
also will be required in 2018 and 2019.
- The 23 cases that OCR identified to highlight problems in case handling were re-opened
and the Title IX Coordinators proposed actions to redress wrongs or to clarify actions
made by the university but not previously reported. Pending OCR approval, any required
action to redress these past cases will be made.
- Guided by the examples highlighted in the 23 specific cases, all cases from 2014-2015
and 2015-2016 academic years were reviewed. Pending OCR approval, the system will
take appropriate action to address any problems identified including providing any
available appropriate remedies.
- Complete case files for all cases from 2016-2017 were submitted to OCR for review along with a tracking report. This requirement will repeat for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years.
While meeting each of these deadlines took many hours for staff in Title IX, Residence Life, Student Services, General Counsel and other offices, the UA System welcomes this effort and the focus on continuous improvement. The safety of employees and students is a priority. The system will continue to work on strengthening awareness, educational campaigns, services, policies and procedures and will continue to comply with the VRA.
VRA Reporting Requirements and Deadlines
Download VRA compliance timetable as PDF
UA Title IX update
Summer was a busy time for University of Alaska Title IX offices. Staff across the system prepared training and orientation activities, took in and responded to reports, provided resources to complainants and respondents, filled staff vacancies and conducted investigations. Further, the team continues to meet weekly and prepare, track, and audit all Title IX cases and complete other compliance work as part of the Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Some of the vacancies filled this summer include:
- Neil Best, UAA Deputy Civil Rights & Title IX Coordinator
- April Stahl, UAA Deputy Civil Rights & Title IX Coordinator
- Graeme Abraham, UAF Lead Investigator/Deputy Title IX Coordinator
Title IX Progress
For the past several years, Title IX efforts have focused on training, reporting and compliance. Accomplishments include creating more awareness about campus sexual assault, completion of a campus climate survey, more training, and implementing a single software system for tracking cases across the system.
Recognizing that a safe and welcoming campus environment is an ongoing process, the university is deepening its focus on evolving as an institution in a way that ensures a respectful environment with an underpinning of safety, equity, and opportunity.
As part of this process, President Jim Johnsen met with senior officials in the Office for Civil Rights in June and discussed with them the university’s framework for how it responds to misconduct complaints, including delayed Title IX complaints. In September, university administration will propose a policy to encourage reporting of misconduct and provide a framework for handling delayed complaints. The draft policy will be discussed and reviewed in the months ahead, and come before the board for decision in November. The goal is to provide appropriate responses to all complaints, focus intensive efforts on issues that are more likely to have ongoing impact on the campus environment and that can more likely be remedied, and to ensure that formal investigative processes can be fundamentally fair.
Other growth is reflected in orientation activities planned across the system this fall. For example, University of Alaska Southeast student activities, Title IX, residence life and other campus departments are working together on a cohesive six weeks of activities themed “In Our Community” to kick off the semester. UAS is educating students both on the incredible opportunities available as well as the expectations for behavior while engaged in all that the university has to offer, beginning with Convocation. Title IX coordinators are building relationships across all our campus communities, sharing Title IX and bystander training and working daily to enhance the campus experience.
Training is essential to improving our campus culture.
This fall both students and employees will find updated training modules, the option to complete a short refresher training, and more options to attend in-person Title IX training. UA currently contracts with Everfi to deliver online training for students and employees. The Title IX team is meeting with UAA Academic Innovations & eLearning to develop a locally built online student training for Fall 2019 geared toward Alaska’s unique populations and issues.
UA received an increasing number of reports to Title IX offices this past year. While initially this may seem like a negative and counterintuitive to all the effort in this area, it is a positive reflecting increasing comfort levels and confidence with coming forward when something is wrong.
This increased reporting requires more capacity in the Title IX offices and departments receiving referrals, such as Human Resources to provide a compassionate, prompt and effective response. In response, President Johnsen has authorized one-time funding from Statewide to immediately increase Title IX and related staffing, with ongoing funding to be included in UA's FY20 budget request.
Title IX and related positions currently planned or under recruitment include:
- Three investigators at UAF
- An additional investigator at UAA (total of 3)
- Additional Senior employee relation specialists in Human Resources offices at UAA & UAF
- A Deputy Title IX coordinator at UAS
Compliance with the VRA continues to be a monumental task.
September 1st is the next reporting deadline for Title IX Coordinator annual training reports. The following deadline is December 30th and includes submission of all new cases for the past year; case audits; documentation of Title IX Coordinator and task force meetings; documentation that employees and students received Title IX training, students were properly noticed of their resources when placed with other entities, and all parties notified of Title IX responsibilities.
All of these efforts are critical as we continue working to improve our campuses and provide a positive place to learn, live and work. All members of the UA community are encouraged to do their part by taking Title IX training annually, actively participating in bystander training and everyday intervention and awareness opportunities, and taking responsibility for growing our culture of safety and respect.