Fairbanks campus rape case draws scrutiny

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is under fire for its response to a campus rape case. A UAF student accuses the university of failing to adequately support and protect her. The criticism follows efforts by the university to improve its sexual assault response process.

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Nineteen-year-old University of Alaska Fairbanks sophomore Jessie Wattum said she was raped at the Bartlett Hall dormitory on the first weekend of the semester after accepting a drink from a male student.

”I’m assuming that after I no longer remember what happened, I kept getting plied with alcohol,” Wattum said.

Wattum said her twin sister, also a UAF student, found her early the next morning, naked and unconscious in the male student’s room. She said she filed a police report, was treated at the hospital, and tried to go to classes, but things fell apart. The district attorney declined to press charges, and UAF allowed the student she said raped her, back into Bartlett Hall, the dorm where her sister lives.

”When they made that decision, my anger shifted from my rapist to the university,” Wattum said.

Jessie Wattum’s mom, and University of Alaska associate director of public relations Kate Wattum said she was there as the university system came under federal scrutiny in recent years for failing to properly adjudicate sexual assault cases.

“It feels like what’s written into the process is a lack of humanity and compassion,” Kate Wattum said. ”I’ve been through a lot with the stuff that went on last year with the Title IX investigation. I was part of helping to organize that and be a part of that. And then to have this happen to my daughter was really, really difficult.”

Kate Wattum said she’s taking leave to help her daughter through what’s turned out to be a less than proactive response by the university.

”I was assured that there was a care team that was going to be emerging. And I was hoping that that care team would have a lead on it,” Kate Wattum said. “None of those things happened. I became Jessie’s advocate and I became Jessie’s care team.”

Kate Wattum said she’s tracking what’s wrong with the system, but does not blame any single administrator for the failings. Requests for comment on the case were directed to UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes. Grimes said she can’t talk about specifics, but defends a flexible system of victim support services, including housing and class schedule changes.

“If someone feels like the services that the university is offering to them are not working for them, they absolutely can ask for changes,” Grimes said.

Grimes added that it’s understandable for a complainant to feel justice is not being served.

“… to want a respondent to be punished immediately,” Grimes added. “However, fairness does require that the university evauluate the complete evidence and all the circumstances.”

Grimes stresses that Wattum’s case remains under investigation, notes that the university has a lower burden of proof to find someone guilty, and can levy sanctions that include suspension and expulsion. In the meantime Jessie Wattum is clear about what she wants.

”Him (her alleged rapist) off UAF so I can take a semester off, and come back to school next summer and feel safe at UAF,” Jessie Wattum said.

Jessie Wattum’s case has drawn support on campus, and beyond since she went public with her story on Facebook last week.

”I have people from all over, not just Alaska. Women in Brazil and Argentina have message me too saying, ‘I wish I would have reported my rape,'” Jessie Wattum said. ” So I’m doing it for them now too.”

The university does not have an expected completion date for an investigative report on the rape case. UAF Chancellor Dana Thomas is hosting a student forum on Title 9 and other issues at the Moore-Bartlett-Skarland dorm complex Sunday, Oct. 30th.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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