When a Woman Is Raped in Rural Alaska, Does Anyone Care?
When Jennifer moved to Alaska to teach in a rural village, she didn't know the state has the highest rate of reported rape in the country. Then, men started banging on her door at night.
Illustrations by Eric Nyquist
On the morning of January 7, 2014, Jennifer* woke up confused, lying on the floor, half-naked, her shirt pulled over her head, her pants yanked to her knees. On her bare chest were bruises, scratches, a large cut on her right breast, and a clear, shiny substance that she would later tell an Alaska state trooper resembled spit.
She feared that the nightmare that had been building in her mind over the last few months had come true: that the people outside—who banged on her door, twisted the door knob, the ones who peered into her windows—had finally broken their way inside.
Jennifer came to Alaska seeking adventure. After teaching in the northwest for several years, she found out about a job opening in a town called Akiachak. It sounded perfect—a job that would combine her love of the classroom with her need for something exciting. The school district is deep in the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, and the remote Yup'ik village around the school boasts a population of 627 residents. Jennifer also had a background in teaching English as a second language and was thrilled to put those skills to work in the village, where most residents speak Yup'ik.
"I wasn't ready to go live in regular America and settle down quite yet," Jennifer tells me over Skype from her attorney's office in late January. Her voice is tight as she talks, and she fidgets, pulling her yellow cardigan around her as she recalls what happened to her in Akiachak. Her long brown hair falls in her face. She doesn't brush it away. "I wanted to go do something different. I thought, why not rural Alaska? I didn't have anything preventing me from going."
While there might be places as secluded as Akiachak in the lower 48, they're undoubtedly easier to get to: 300 miles from the nearest major city, Akiachak can't be reached by roads. It is accessible by plane in good weather, boat in the summer, and by ice road when the winter weather is right (though climate change may eliminate that option).
These remote conditions mean there is no rental housing market. Jennifer and other out-of-state teachers were provided housing by the school district. Jennifer was assigned to a small two-bedroom cabin known as the Brown House. Calling the place a home felt a bit like putting makeup on a pig: No number of curtains or posters could pull attention away from the soft, sagging ceiling that Jennifer and a past roommate could poke pencils through and watch drain. Mice skittered across the floor. The pipes froze. The rickety home stood atop wooden posts that kept it elevated from the mud and sewage that tended to collect below.
The Brown House stood on the edge of a marshy field, near an empty trailer park and a dilapidated school that attracted kids, aggressive dogs, and drunk adults who would sometimes hurl icy clods of mud at Jennifer's windows.
Jennifer says she was never warned of any danger awaiting her in her new home—at least not before she signed her teaching contract. Jennifer recalls a conversation with the assistant superintendent of the school district, Kim Langton, who is now named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit that Jennifer filed against the Yupiit School District, several administrators, the director of the Alaska State Troopers, and the state trooper who responded to Jennifer's case in late 2015. The school district did not respond to requests for comment on this story; Langton, when reached, declined to talk.
"Right after I signed my contract, I was told that I needed to 'be careful' because a teacher had been raped the year before in a nearby village," Jennifer says, referring to her conversation with Langton. "I was told that it was fine and she's fine and everything's fine, and it had been taken care of."
Jennifer wasn't sure to make of Langton's comment. Was it a warning? Or a freak occurrence?
But one afternoon, in January 2012, Jennifer began to understand why Langton had brought it up. Jennifer heard thudding outside her house, and she looked outside to see a man chopping at the wooden post that held up her home with an axe. After she yelled out the window at the man, who left without incident, she called her superiors at the school district.
"There wasn't really anything anyone could do," she says. "I called the school district and some of the officials came by right away, but nothing ever came of it. It opened my eyes to the fact that this wasn't Kansas anymore."
To add to Jennifer's unease, the locks on the Brown House often wouldn't latch. Further, according to her lawsuit, at least 20 people who worked for the school district had a key that could open the deadbolt.
For a time, Jennifer had a roommate, a temporary employee of the school, and the two would travel and run errands in pairs. But when her roommate moved out, Jennifer was left alone in the Brown House. She started to feel unsafe.
In August 2012, when Jennifer was living alone, she awoke one day to two teenage boys standing at the foot of her bed. "I jumped out of my bed and chased them through my house, down the long hallway, and outside, screaming at them," she says. She called the school, reporting what she felt were mischievous students. "It was really frightening," she says. According to her Jennifer's lawsuit, the school failed to investigate the issue or report it to police.
Soon, she had another roommate, who stayed in Akiachak until the end of the school year. But once the school year ended, Jennifer was living alone again.
I jumped out of my bed and chased them through my house, down the long hallway, and outside, screaming at them.
In September 2013, she returned home from school one day to find the word BITCH scrawled in crayon across her front door.
Then, the knocking started.
In October, Jennifer began barricading her door with brackets and two-by-fours she bought in the nearest town.
In December, her house was ransacked. "Everything had been torn off the walls, swept off the counter, and completely fucked with," Jennifer says. She called the local police, who came to investigate but did not contact her to follow up.
Inside, Jennifer kept lamps on at all hours, until she became scared that the people outside could see her through her curtains. She began to live in the dark, feeling her way around her house. "I just left my lights off all the time," she recalls.
She made hiding spots—between the washer and the dryer, in the closet in a spare bedroom—for when men's voices called her name. When they demanded she face them.
"They would want me to come out," she says, "or they would ask to come in and demand sex. 'Come on!'"
Jennifer begged her superiors at the school district, who were both her employer and her landlord, to give her a new roommate, or to move her to a new house. According to Jennifer's lawsuit, Peggie Price, the principal of the Akiachak school, told Jennifer she would be accommodated in a new house after winter break. "I really thought it was going to get better," Jennifer says.
But in early 2014, when Jennifer returned to Akiachak after spending the holidays at home in Washington, Price told her that there were no vacancies at other properties. According to Jennifer's lawsuit, Price then told Jennifer that she "had no options" for her and that her problem "sounded personal." Jennifer told Price that she would be sleeping at the school until there could be a better housing solution.
On the evening of January 6, Jennifer was gathering her things inside the Brown House when she felt a seizure coming on. Jennifer had recently been diagnosed with epilepsy. Over time, she had learned that the best way to avoid injury as she had a seizure was to lie down on the floor, away from tables and objects she could bump into. She grabbed her pink-and-maroon sleeping bag and unrolled it on the hallway floor. She lined the walls with pillows and laid down in the soft trough she'd created.
Jennifer awoke that next morning with her tank top pulled up over her head, lacerations on her chest, and a pain between her legs. She began to panic and dialed the village police officer every 15 minutes until someone answered and told her not to call again. When Jennifer called the Alaska State Troopers, they refused to take her report and told her to call the village police.
Finally, two of Jennifer's coworkers at the school convinced the state troopers to take her report. They flew into the village and airlifted Jennifer to a nearby town so she could be examined and have a rape kit administered.
According to Jennifer's lawsuit, the results of the exam indicated signs of forcible assault. Months later, she was tested for sexually transmitted diseases. She tested positive for herpes, a diagnosis she did not have before January 6.
Alaska has the highest rate of reported rape in the country, close to triple the national average. According to the FBI's 2012 Uniform Crime Report, there were nearly 80 rapes per 100,000 residents of Alaska. For child sexual assault, the numbers are six times the national average.
The 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey, conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), found that 33 out of every 100 women who reside in Alaska have experienced sexual violence. When the university's Dr. Andre Rosay presented the latest results of the survey at a meeting in late February, he noted that the new numbers—which also reveal that half of Alaskan women report they've experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or both—were, shockingly, an improvement. "The numbers are still atrocious," he said. "They're unacceptable."
Captain Andrew Merrill, an Alaska state trooper who oversees the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program, explains that most villages in the Alaskan Bush have little police presence. Currently, 70 have a VPSO—but those people aren't just law enforcement. A VPSO serves as an emergency first responder to all manners of crisis: criminal, medical, and fire. Akiachak, like many Alaskan villages, does not have a VPSO, but has a VPO—a village police officer—who is hired by the village and not supervised by the state troopers.
Merrill says finding people to be a VPSO can be difficult for the very same reasons that victims of rape stay quiet: They don't want to lose their community.
"We have VPSOs who grew up in their village, lived there their entire lives, and when they became a VPSO, the village ostracized them," he says. "They're now arresting their brothers, their cousins. We have communities that start treating them and their families very poorly." This reality might force a VPSO to quit—Merrill says he has a 33 percent turnover rate in his program—or discourage them from reporting certain crimes.
Merrill says he's tried recruiting outsiders—and it's often a viable solution. But for many who are unfamiliar with life without running water or indoor plumbing, a job with so much demand, no back-up, and few days off can be a tough sell.
If a sexual assault is reported, a VPSO is the "first boots on the ground," Merrill says—but they can't conduct felony investigations. And while they undergo similar sexual assault training to Alaska State Troopers, a past domestic violence conviction on their record won't disqualify someone from having the job.
"If a VPSO at 19 or 20 gets in a fight with his girlfriend and is convicted of his assault," Merrill explains, "ten years later, if he's changed his life, he can apply to be a VPSO."
In her civil lawsuit, Jennifer claims the Yupiit School District was negligent for providing her with housing they knew was unsafe and that by doing so, the district breached its "duty of care," which led to prolonged emotional distress, eventual sexual assault, her contraction of herpes, and the loss of her job. Even further, the suit says the district violated Title IX by creating an environment that allowed "sex-based harassment" that was so severe that it "deprived [Jennifer] of the ability to work at the Akiachak School."
The suit also alleges that Langton retaliated against Jennifer, giving a "false negative reference" to a prospective employer when Jennifer began seeking teaching positions again, stating that "he had no knowledge of why she left her position in the middle of the year."
But a teacher leaving the district mid-year was hardly something that would stand out; it is, some say, business as usual. In a 2013 report, Diane Hirshberg, director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at UAA, observed that while teacher turnover in Alaska's urban districts was consistently low, rural districts, like Yupiit, could see as high as a 52 percent turnover. "We see a lot of teachers in rural Alaska saying they're not supported by their community or their administration," she says. Between 2007 and 2012, the Yupiit School District, where Jennifer taught, had the fifth-highest turnover rate in the state—at nearly 40 percent.
At first glance, Jennifer's case could be considered isolated—a perfect storm of factors that led to the unexpected assault of a teacher. But Jennifer's case paints a different picture: one in which teachers in the Yupiit School District's three villages—Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak—are being harassed and injured. In 2011, a teacher in Tuluksak was raped. (That teacher declined to talk to Broadly for this story.) In a 2015 Alaska Dispatch News article about a two-million-dollar civil suit being filed against the Yupiit School District—in which nine girls claimed they were sexually molested by a white teacher—a former school counselor called Tuluksak "one of the most dysfunctional places on the planet."
In 2012, in the village of Akiak (just seven miles from Akiachak), a teacher named Lara Ruark wondered if she could have also been a victim.
"Can I come in?" he asked through the door.
Ruark, like Jennifer, came to Alaska on a whim after losing her California teaching job in a round of massive district layoffs. "Somebody made a joke like, hey, you could always try Alaska?" she says. "I was like, you know, that's really not a bad idea."
Before she knew it, she landed a job with the Yupiit School District in Akiak. By the summer of 2010, she was flying in a bush plane over the vast Alaskan tundra, watching the quilt of green break just long enough for a cluster of buildings to emerge.
Late one night in April 2012, in Ruark's final year of teaching, she finished a Game of Thrones marathon at around 3 AM. She was switching off the lights in her house when she heard a soft knock on her door. She froze.
Ruark, like all Yupiit teachers, lived in a district-owned house. Hers, though, was a duplex—one with a shared front door, mud room, and laundry room that split off in a T, leading one way to her door, and the other way to the door of a male teacher.
The knock came at her door—beyond two locked doors.
"Who is it?" Ruark asked through the door.
It was a school maintenance worker—one of several people who had keys to all district buildings, including housing.
"Can I come in?" he asked through the door.
Behind her, Ruark's dog—an Alaskan Malamute—growled. "Is everything OK?" she asked, hesitating to open the door.
"I really want to talk to you," the man responded, slurring his words.
Ruark could tell he was drunk. She was frantic, realizing the man had already used his key to get this far into her home. Would he come in anyway? If she didn't let him in, would he get angry?
"I really want to talk to you," Ruark said, her fingers grabbing for her cell phone and dialing the teacher next door, "but I really want to go to bed."
They went back and forth: the man pleading, Ruark declining. She stalled, dialing and redialing next door. Suddenly, she heard her neighbor's dog bark—she thinks because her phone calls woke him and his dog—and she heard the man leave in a hurry.
The next day, Ruark reported the incident to the school district. The district, she says, expressed concern that she wasn't safe—encouraging her to pack up her things and stay the night with another teacher. "They were worried that there would be retribution," she says.
Ruark followed their directions, and received a barrage of texts from the embarrassed maintenance worker apologizing. Later, the school district arranged for the man to apologize in person. "I was like, look, we're not friends. You're creepy and scary," Ruark says. "The school district told him to leave me alone. But they didn't fire him. He got suspended."
And Ruark says the district asked her to stay quiet: "[They] tried to say, 'Don't tell anyone about this. The situation is over,'" she says.
They tried to say, 'Don't tell anyone about this. The situation is over.'
Jennifer's lawsuit claims that sex-based discrimination on the part of the school district forced her out of her job, which is a violation of Title IX, her attorney, Caitlin Shortell, says. "[Jennifer] reported these incidents of harassment," Shortell says. "They failed in their duties under Title IX to respond to, investigate, and remedy her complaints of sexual harassment. It culminates in her being forced out of her employment by sexual discrimination. She was not able to stay there and live in the only available housing, because they placed her in an unsafe position as a woman alone."
Ruark says the incident she experienced was the reason she decided to go. She didn't feel support from the district to keep her safe.
By December 2012, another teacher noticed what felt like a swell of dangerous behavior toward teachers in the district. Joshua Johnson, who taught in Akiachak for eight years, wrote a letter to then-governor Sean Parnell about a lack of support from the school district, mentioning the 2011 rape in Tuluksak and Ruark's 2012 incident.
"There is a fundamental element within the Yupiit School District so inept and flawed as to warrant extreme action," he wrote in his letter. "There are people and dysfunctional norms within the district that have moved beyond simply impeding instruction and are staggering towards criminal negligence."
Johnson, who now works as a teacher in New Mexico, says he recalls female teachers in Akiachak being terrified as they walked in the dark to work. He began taking a district truck, without permission, just to shuttle teachers to school. And eventually he left the district, feeling paralyzed by his inability to change things—harassment toward teachers, sexual abuse of kids—that had become accepted as normal.
"It is my opinion that anything short of the immediate dismissal of certain district leadership, a complete overhaul of the district office, and intense, on-the-ground monitoring of the regional school board is putting not only children at risk, but many others as well."
Less than a month after he mailed his letter, Jennifer was frantically calling police, saying she had been raped in her home as she slept.
Jennifer never returned to Akiachak. After her alleged assaulted, she spent a week in a women's shelter in another town. She was hospitalized when she couldn't eat. She sought mental health treatment.
At one point, Jennifer considered returning to Akiachak, calling district employees to see if she could be housed somewhere else. When no housing options were provided, she left the state. She was hospitalized again for PTSD. She couldn't sleep without having nightmares. She developed a stutter and suffered from panic attacks.
In Akiachak, Jennifer felt under siege, she and her attorney say. And yet, still, she tried to defend herself. Tried to get help. Tried to do whatever she could without breaking the commitment she made: to stay, to teach, to help the kids she had come to love.
"You made a commitment," she says. "You've got to see it through."
Shortell—who in the past helmed the case that saw Alaska's same-sex marriage ban overturned—says this case is about toppling a way of life, a system unique to Alaska that keeps rapists protected and keeps victims suffering.
"When you [ask], is there a culture against women? Is there a culture of sexual violence?" Shortell says, "I think the answer is yes."
*Jennifer is not her real name.