NAU offers partial docs after threat of legal action

The Lumberjack has requested documents from the NAU Office of the President through the Arizona public records laws. This illustration demonstrates the process of redaction.

Following repeated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from The Lumberjack, NAU released the summaries of 13 formal complaints regarding sexual harassment or assault involving faculty, staff and students both on and off campus from 2010 to 2016.

The summaries, released May 2, were only the first half of what the university had promised to deliver to The Lumberjack. The university has also promised redacted versions of seven of the case files.

Details in the descriptions of the 13 documents were scarce, and included a brief description whether the complainant and respondent were faculty, staff or students. Of the 13 cases, seven involved students and either faculty or staff. Nine involved students.

NAU also gave basic details as to the allegations, whether the investigation showed the allegations to be true and if the accused violated the university’s Safe Working and Learning Environment (SWALE) policy.

SWALE is meant to protect students and university employees from harassment and prohibits relationships between faculty and students, or employees and supervisors when one of the two parties has professional or academic authority over the other. Under SWALE, retaliation is also prohibited.

Lastly, the summaries included what the outcome of the investigation was, including any disciplinary action that occurred.

In a note accompanying the descriptions, NAU general counsel Michelle Parker wrote that all cases that were found to have merit were dealt with by the university and the offending party was disciplined.

“Additionally, one of the cases with a no cause finding also resulted in a finding that the complainant intentionally provided false information to the university,” said Parker in an email.

One of the many details left out were the dates when any of the allegations occurred. Beyond the fact that the incidents occurred between 2010 and 2016, there is no way of knowing exactly when a case was reported.

Additionally, no individuals were identified by name.

The cases were not limited to student-faculty relationships. Of the 13 cases reported, nine involved students. In each case with a student complainant, the student was the reporting party.

Among the nine student-reported cases, three involved a staff member, four involved a faculty member, one involved a teaching assistant and one involved a student employee.

Of the three involving a student and a staff member, only one was found to have merit by NAU’s investigation. The incident occurred off campus and both the student and the staff member said the act was consensual, but both admitted to being under the influence of alcohol, which may have negated any consent given.

The staff member resigned after the conclusion of the investigation.

With respect to the investigations involving faculty members, this outcome is not uncommon.

As the summaries showed, five of the 13 cases investigated ended with the faculty or staff member either resigning or having their relationship with the university ‘separated,’ meaning NAU simply refused to renew their employment instead of firing them.

The rest received various forms of reprimands, including no-contact orders, being moved to different positions and receiving letters of warning.

The summaries give only a glimpse of sexual assault and harassment at NAU, as only non-identifying details of formal complaints made during a six-year span were shared. SWALE also includes steps for informal complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

According to SWALE, informal complaints must be reported to the Office of Equity and Access. This department is also to be consulted before any disciplinary action is taken by NAU.

The exact number of informal complaints is unknown, as there may be many more still undisclosed. Many of these informal complaints may have also been resolved at the “department or unit level,” according to SWALE.

With respect to workplace harassment, however, one thing is clear: It is often underreported. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated that as many as 75 percent of workplace sexual harassment are never reported.

In the past, NAU spokesperson Kimberly Ott has said the university takes these cases very seriously.

“NAU takes any allegations against an employee seriously and is thoroughly responsive,” said Ott in 2017.

The release of these summaries was in response to a nearly two-year inquiry by The Lumberjack to inform the campus community on how often sexual misconduct occurs on campus and how the university deals with it.

NAU agreed to release a portion of the documents and the summaries of the disclosed incidents after The Lumberjack threatened legal action in early 2018. The investigation is still ongoing.