Content Warning: This story contains references to sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A Western senior who was banned from campus in winter 2015 after being charged with a felony count of raping another student has been readmitted to the university after pleading the case down to a lesser charge and serving jail time. He is taking classes this quarter, according to the Registrar’s office.
Connor Patrick Griesemer, 24, pleaded guilty Aug. 24, 2015 to a gross-misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation, and was sentenced to 30 days in Whatcom County Jail, according to court records.
Wayne Rocque, Associated Students vice president for student life, a position not a part of the university’s Office of Student Life, criticized the university’s decision to readmit Griesemer.
“The readmission of Connor Griesemer is a slap in the face to students that advocate for survivors, as well as survivors themselves and is a testament to the general complacency that plagues campuses across the country,” Rocque said in an email to The Western Front.
Paul Cocke, university director of communications and marketing, declined to comment on the specific case, citing federal privacy law.
Cocke said the readmission process begins with an evaluation of the situation and the student’s ability to re-enter the campus community.
“The Dean of Students Office is responsible to first assess the community safety issue, which is the top priority for the campus, and for the individual to be able to be successful and avoid repeat offenses,” Cocke said in an email.
In February 2015, Griesemer was found in violation of Western’s student code on sexual misconduct, according to a university incident report obtained in a Western Front public records request. He was prohibited from contacting the survivor, and suspended from campus through September 2016. However, he was allowed to stay on campus until he finished his last final exam in March, approximately a month later, according to university records.
The Western Front reached Griesemer via text and he declined to comment for this story.
Western has been under U.S. Department of Education investigation for how it handles sexual assault and misconduct cases since April 2015.
University documents referenced in this story were obtained via Western Front records requests.
In his email, Rocque said the AS Board was concerned with Griesemer’s readmission.
“There has been a history of the Office of Student Life putting survivors of sexual assault in extremely unsafe and compromising situations,” Rocque said. “The Associated Students [Board] and I am appalled at the recent decision to permit this student to attend classes on this campus without being transparent with our student body.”
The Western Front has not been able to confirm if Griesemer’s classes are on Western’s campus or not.
Rocque and the AS Board encourage students to call the Office of the Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services, and the Office of Student Life, to demand transparency in light of this case.
“Do your research about how this university has handled sexual assault in the past and demand answers,” Rocque said. “This decision goes against everything the students of Western Washington University stand for. This decision actively works against vulnerable student populations. Those that commit sexual assault are a threat to all students at Western.”
Cocke said in some cases, the university lets previously suspended students return only after those who filed complaints against them have graduated. In other cases, students are allowed to come back to campus and it is the Office of Student Life’s responsibility to ensure the students do not have classes together.
“In all cases, every effort is made to ensure that the student/complainant reporting the concern has full access to their educational experience,” Cocke said.
However, Western senior Martín Prado, an advocacy counselor with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services and member of Western’s Empowerment and Violence Education, said the decision to let a known sexual assault perpetrator on campus can harm students’ educational experience.
Prado said not all survivors react the same way, but a major aspect of recovery is regaining control of their lives and the spaces they occupy. He said that can be hard to do when they have to think about turning a corner on campus and running into a known perpetrator of a sexually motivated crime.
“Especially in a learning environment like Western, it would definitely make it harder [to begin recovery],” Prado said. “Of course [survivors] can be successful, but it would be easier to breathe if you knew the perpetrator wasn’t anywhere near you, and it would be beneficial not having to worry about them doing it to someone else.”
Griesemer was a visual journalism major and has worked on the staff of The Western Front. His major is now undeclared, according the Registrar’s Office.
Given the amount of small group and one-on-one work involved in senior level visual journalism classes, senior Kyra Taubel-Bruce, a visual journalism major, said she wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a class with someone convicted of sexual assault.
“I worked one-on-one with a classmate in advanced visual journalism to put together our capstone project, and it did involve the two of us going different places, being in his car and being alone,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable if I knew the classmate I was working with had been convicted of sexual assault.”
She said she is personally skeptical of the university’s decision based on past handling of sexual assault cases and the ongoing investigations by the Department of Education.
“I want to think they have students’ best interests at heart, and they are taking into consideration all the different possibilities and all the different questions that go into the readmission of this student,” she said. “But, I think a lot of students would question that based on the university’s track record.”
According to Whatcom County Superior Court records, Griesemer originally faced a charge of second-degree rape, a felony. Prosecutors said he raped a female Western student following an off-campus party on Jan. 11, 2015.
After meeting with the survivor, Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge emailed Griesemer on Feb. 2, 2015 to schedule a student conduct review, according to university documents. The meeting was scheduled for Feb. 5, 2015.
At the meeting with university officials, Griesemer read a prepared statement denying the allegations and said he would not answer any questions, according to the documents.
After reviewing police documents, the university reports indicate that Sledge emailed Griesemer on Feb. 17, 2015 informing him he had been found in violation of the student conduct code which states, “consent to any sexual activity must be clear, knowing, and voluntary.” In the email, Sledge said he found it more likely than not that Griesemer had committed the acts of which he was accused.
Sledge wrote that the suspension would not go into effect until after Griesemer completed his last final of the quarter. That quarter’s finals week went until March 20, 2015 approximately a month after Sledge decided Griesemer would be suspended. The letter informed Griesemer that his suspension would end on September 6, 2016, at which point he could apply for readmission.
Cocke said expulsions at Western are rare and are based on how severe the university sees the offense.
“The student conduct process is intended to be educational at its core,” Cocke said. “If the person involved has gone through the process and is demonstrating by their actions they are responding in a positive manner, that certainly will be taken into consideration. But safety always is the top priority.”
University records show Griesemer appealed the decision and was denied by Dean of Students Ted Pratt. In Pratt’s March 13, 2015 written response to Griesemer’s appeal, he called the assault a “bad decision.”
“It is unfortunate that you [Connor] are so close to graduation and to have that journey interrupted by a bad decision influenced by alcohol,” Pratt wrote. “I hope that this is a situation that is not to be repeated in your life experiences.”
Griesemer ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than the original felony count of second-degree rape. On August 24, 2015 he pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation, a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail. The reduced charge meant he was not required to register as a sex offender.
Griesemer was ultimately sentenced to 30 days in Whatcom County Jail and ordered to pay $2,000 in fines. He was booked into Whatcom County Jail on Oct. 27, 2015 and released Nov. 17, 2015, according to jail records. He was also issued a no-contact order regarding the survivor.
The survivor of the assault graduated in spring 2016, before Griesemer was allowed back on campus, according to the Registrar’s office. She sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder from the assault and suffered frequent flashbacks and nightmares, according to court records.
University policy change
Multiple complaints have been filed with the Equal Opportunity Office (EOO) since 2012 regarding the Office of Student Life’s handling of sexual assault and misconduct cases, as reported by The Western Front in Nov. 2016.
Students were concerned with what they saw as insensitivity and lack of transparency from Sledge during sexual misconduct investigations, as well as light punishments for those found guilty. An EOO investigation cleared Sledge of wrongdoing, but recommended additional training for Sledge on handling such cases.
Responsibility for handling these complaints was moved from the Office of Student Life to the EOO in September 2016. The university felt this change would be beneficial to students, as it would consolidate sexual assault and misconduct investigations in a single office, Cocke told the Front in November. The decision came after an internal review and while a number of investigations into how Western handles sexual assault and misconduct cases were ongoing.
However, some still feel the university’s response to concerns has been lacking.
“It has been conveyed to the Office of Student Life and the vice president for enrollment and students services, Eileen Coughlin, that sexual assault cases have been mishandled a number of times,” Rocque said. “There has been little to no tangible action on ensuring the safety of survivors on the Western Washington University campus.”
Prado said it is important for the university to have staff that those who have experienced sexually motivated crimes can trust.
“These topics are hard to talk about for many people, so if that trust isn’t there, there are going to be large amounts of people not seeking help or resources, and not letting the university know what’s going on,” Prado said.
Western is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The investigation began in April 2015, after a student sexual assault survivor filed a complaint with the federal government over how the university was handling sexual violence and harassment complaints.
Updated Tuesday, May 16 to explain that the AS vice president of student life is not a position under the university’s Office of Student Life.