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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Rural Alaska Teacher Tells of Sexual Assault

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) - A southwestern Alaska school showed "deliberate indifference" to the sexual harassment and assault of a female teacher in school housing, the teacher claims in Federal Court.

Plaintiff A.M. taught school in the rural village of Akiachak within the Yupiit School District from fall 2011 to January 2014. She was subjected to discrimination and harassment during her employment leading to a sexual assault, according to the complaint filed Dec. 19 in the District of Alaska.

A.M. filed the lawsuit under her own name, but Courthouse News is opting to use her initials due to the sensitive nature of her claims.

Along with the Yupiit School District, A.M. names then-acting superintendant Kim Langston, assistant superintendent Diane George and Akiachak School principal Peggie Price as defendants. Even farther reaching, A.M. names the Alaska State Troopers, its director Colonel James Cockrell and Trooper Sterling Peele, who investigated A.M.'s sexual assault.

Peele failed to submit the rape kit and DNA evidence collected from A.M. for testing to the Alaska Crime Lab, she says in her complaint.

Akiachak, a village with just over 600 residents, is located in an area known as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on the Kuskokwim River. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 95 percent of the population is Alaska Native. White residents make up just 3.5 percent, most of whom - including A.M. at the time - are employed by the school district.

A.M. was hired at a job fair in Oregon and accepted a position starting in 2011. During the recruitment process, Yupiit recruiters "gave A.M. no indication that there was a high incidence of sexual violence targeting female school district employees," she says in her complaint.

Because Akiachak is not on the road system, with limited options for transport in and out of the community, teachers have little choice but to live in housing rented by the school. Despite the promise of hot and cold running water, heat and electricity, A.M. says her home "was infested with rodents, had non-functioning heat, and no working lights on the outside of the home."

Also, once community members found out her roommate had left midway through the school year, "on almost a nightly basis strange men would pound on her door and outside walls of her house, demanding to be let in and loudly demanding sex," A.M. says in her complaint.

By the middle of her third teaching year - after repeatedly reporting unsafe conditions, inoperable locks, trespass and sexual harassment incidents - the district offered to move A.M. to another housing unit. However, when she returned from Christmas break none of the promised units promised, she says.

According to the complaint, at this point A.M. told defendant Price that she intended to sleep in the school at night until they found her other suitable housing because she felt in imminent danger in her own home.

A.M. also suffers from epilepsy and during seizures she loses consciousness, according to her lawsuit. On the evening of Jan. 6, 2014 she had a seizure and when she came to she found her shirt pulled up, pants pulled down, lacerations on her chest and pain in her genital area consistent with a sexual assault, the complaint states.

The teacher attempted unsuccessfully to reach the public safety officers, turning then to Alaska State Troopers who flew her to Bethel where a "sexual assault response team exam" was conducted, she says.

After and despite the attack, A.M. asked for alternative housing. The district again refused her, so she had no choice but to leave her teaching position," the teacher says in the complaint.

She stayed in the Bethel women's shelter, sought mental health treatment and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. A.M. says she has since tested positive for an incurable form of herpes, suffers from a complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder and related physical health issues.

A.M.'s suit is not the first such action brought against the Yupiit School District. The Alaska Dispatch News reported in 2014 that the district settled a $2 million civil suit with nine Alaska Native female students and two adults that had accused a white Tuluksak teacher of sexual molestation. The teacher was not prosecuted and has since left the state.

An Alaska Dispatch analysis of the state's sex-offender database found that in some villages, one in every 30 men is a registered sex offender. Currently there are 18 listed in Akiachak.

However, that doesn't mean that A.M.'s assailant was one of the registered since officials there did not adequately investigate her attack and the attacker remains at large, A.M. says in her complaint.

Unfortunately it was not until after A.M. accepted her employment contract, defendant Langston, who has since retired, "warned her to 'be careful' because a teacher in a neighboring village of Tuluksak had been raped in her school district-provided housing in the summer of 2011," the complaint states. In addition to the Tuluksak teacher the complaint lists another teacher who was sexually harassed in Akiak, another Yupiit district village.

Meanwhile, Alaska - mostly known for its rugged wilderness, beautiful scenery and fierce wildlife - also remains unflatteringly the rape capital of the United States.

With 80 rapes per 100,000 according to the FBI crime report, the state's rate of rape is three times the national average. Many occur in roadless rural communities like Akiachak.

A.M. is suing for negligence, gross negligence, emotional distress, retaliation for taking protected leave, supervisor liability and violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting discrimination in employment, since the school district receives federal funding.

She seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an order that the school take effective steps to prevent future discrimination and harassment of teachers.

A.M. is represented by Caitlin Shortell of Anchorage, who declined to comment on the case.

The defendants have not responded to requests for comment.

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