UAS decides to keep co-ed housing policy

Bruce Gifford: 'We'd be disrupting students if we were to move them'

Posted: Thursday, February 04, 2010

The University of Alaska Southeast has decided to allow students living in co-ed campus housing to remain in their living arrangements through the rest of the semester while officials complete a review of its policies.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

University officials decided last week to move students living in co-ed apartments after police arrested a 21-year-old male student who was accused of raping a female roommate Jan. 23 in an on-campus apartment. Officials reversed the decision this week after students expressed concern that a housing shakeup would be too disruptive to their studies.

"I want to make sure whatever (housing policy) we have, we've set up to a manner of student success. It's a living, learning environment," said Bruce Gifford, vice chancellor of student services. "What the feedback was, is, 'You are rushing it too much.' We'd be disrupting students if we were to move them."

Dominic Merrill was arrested Jan. 28 and charged with one count of felony sexual assault. He is presently being held in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center on $25,000 bail.

The university had been conducting a review of its housing program prior to the report of the alleged rape. The university must finish reviewing the housing policy as a whole before it makes any decisions, Gifford said.

"It could be they come back in 2010 in the fall and it's a different living situation because we are going to do a review and it's going to be thorough," he said.

There are currently six co-ed apartments on campus out of 50 apartments. The co-ed roommates each have their own bedroom with a locking door and share a bathroom, kitchen and living room.

Many students have been in a state of disbelief after hearing that a student was allegedly raped in a co-ed apartment, Student Government President Tyler Preston said.

"The campus is mostly shocked and saddened at what happened," he said. "It's our first event in more than a decade since we've had any sort of sexual assault on campus or anything similar."

The student government is waiting to see the reaction of the student body on the co-ed housing policy before it weighs in, Preston said.

"Student government, for the time being, we are sitting and watching, letting things unfold and sort of trying to gauge exactly where the student opinion is at so that we can decide our course of action," he said. "Obviously our job is to represent their interest, so until we have a full group of students on our hands that want to take action against the university, we won't be taking any action on our own."

The university has security guards that patrol campus grounds but it was decided not to beef up security because the alleged assault took place inside an apartment, Gifford said. The alleged incident could have taken place in many different kinds of living situations, on campus or off, he said.

"Students will tell you that this is a very safe campus," Gifford said. "It's been safe for many years."

Kierstin Barlow, 19, said she was not worried about her safety living on campus after hearing about the alleged sexual assault.

"I really feel comfortable here," she said. "The only times I've been nervous is when people who aren't supposed to be on campus have been on campus."

Changing the co-ed housing policy seems a bit extreme after one alleged incident, Barlow said.

"I'm concerned a little bit but I think precautions could be taken rather than cutting it off and saying no to co-ed dorms," she said. "I think that's a little dramatic. But definitely, I think there should be more concern as far as alcohol allowed in dorms that are co-ed, or maybe all together."

Merrill admitted to sexually assaulting his female roommate in their apartment while under the influence of alcohol, according to court documents.

Along with reviewing its housing program, the university plans this week to draft a letter to students and a separate one for faculty regarding the incident, Gifford said. Housing also plans to host a meeting in the near future for students living on campus.

"From the university's perspective, we're trying to bring students and faculty up to date," Gifford said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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