Western expels second student for sexual misconduct in five years, but too late
Content warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault.
On June 12, Nickolas (Nick) Tadashi Vitalis was sanctioned with expulsion after a Western investigation found him responsible for sexual misconduct and dating and domestic violence. Four days later, Vitalis was allowed to walk at graduation.
It took Western administrators four months to investigate. By the time they decided to expel Vitalis, they couldn’t prevent him from graduating, as decisions aren’t considered final until a ten-day appeal period has passed.
The Office of Student Life, which handles student conduct cases and determines sanctions, has shown a pattern of reluctance to expel students found responsible for sexual misconduct. Vitalis is the second such student to be expelled in the past five years and the first to be expelled by the Office of Student Life itself, instead of an appeals board.
“In cases where we’ve found someone in violation of the sexual misconduct code for raping someone, that’s been a suspension,” Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge was quoted as saying in a December 2017 article in The Western Front.
Western’s policy states it does not tolerate sexual misconduct and takes action against students found responsible for it. But administrators say the conduct process is designed to be educational, and students have protested what they see as light sanctions for sexual misconduct.
Mieke Doezema, the student who reported Vitalis, said the long and frustrating investigation she went through didn’t end in justice.
Vitalis, now a journalism alumnus and former reporter for The Western Front, said he believes the university is making an example of him to make up for criticism that sanctions are light for sexual misconduct. He appealed the sanctions, but the appeals board disagreed and upheld the expulsion on Aug. 1. Vitalis has submitted a request for review by the dean of students.
The Equal Opportunity Office took over investigations in fall 2016, after survivors spoke publicly about how they felt the Office of Student Life was mishandling cases and faculty applied behind-the-scenes pressure on administrators.
But the Office of Student Life maintained control of determining discipline. While Sledge oversees the conduct process as assistant dean of students, conduct officer Jessica Stillwell began handling cases in fall 2016.
Office of Student Life documents dating back to 2010 obtained through multiple public records requests show several instances where survivors were not given their desired outcome after the student they reported was found responsible for sexual misconduct.
Experts on prevention, survivor advocates and mental health professionals said they are concerned the university system isn’t responding strongly enough to sexual assault to serve as a deterrent, respecting survivors’ wishes or properly educating and rehabilitating perpetrators.
Since March, administrators have been discussing students’ concern with Western’s sanctions for students found responsible of sexual misconduct, meeting minutes from the work group on sexual violence prevention and response show.
President Sabah Randhawa has made public statements about addressing concerns with sanctions for sexual misconduct. He ordered an internal audit of how cases have been handled, which he said was expected to be complete by mid-July in a May 31 interview with the AS Review. As of Aug. 3, the internal audit has not been released.
Sledge did not respond to requests for comment and questions sent multiple times over the course of three weeks. Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke said in an email on June 11 that Sledge was too busy to answer questions. Attempts to contact him in the following weeks were unsuccessful, as were attempts to contact Stillwell.
Only 12.5 percent of rapes that occur in college are reported to officials and campus or community resources, according to a 2016 Department of Justice study. Survivors may fear not being believed, due to misconceptions about false reports, which are no higher for sexual assault than other crimes. A 2010 study found the prevalence of false reports to be 5.9 percent.
The Western Front does not name survivors of sexual violence without their consent. Doezema said she wanted her name used so she could be a resource for other survivors on campus.
Read the other stories in this series
Sexual assault survivors frustrated with Western investigations despite changes to process
Current and former staff say Western isn’t doing enough to prevent sexual assault
Behind the series: Unresponsive administrators, incomplete records
Two expulsions for sexual misconduct in past five years
On June 12, Vitalis was found responsible for sexual misconduct, conduct that harms or threatens health or safety, dating violence and domestic violence, according to disciplinary records. He was sanctioned with expulsion and trespassed from the university for seven years, due to Western’s record retention policy, according to disciplinary records.
Vitalis participated in the investigation by the Equal Opportunity Office, but he did not meet with the Office of Student Life, which scheduled two meetings with him. Vitalis said this is because the office sent emails to his student account, which he did not see until after the scheduled meeting dates had passed.
The Equal Opportunity Office found sufficient evidence that Vitalis’ behavior on one occasion in November 2015 constituted sexual assault due to a lack of consent, according to investigation records. In Vitalis’ written statement to the Equal Opportunity Office, he wrote that when he asked for consent, Doezema said she was unsure, which the investigator pointed to as evidence it was not consensual.
Doezema responded to this in her appeal statement, saying “since I was not experienced, meek, and scared, I may not have violently said no, but my actions showed I was not wanting to engage and I never gave any verbal consent.”
Vitalis said he believes what happened was consensual or a misunderstanding.
The office also found him responsible for dating and domestic violence, finding sufficient evidence that he blocked Doezema from passing around him and later shoved her away while he was experiencing a personal crisis to get her to leave the room in February 2017, according to the Equal Opportunity Office report. The report also said the investigator found evidence Vitalis “showed anger and violence toward himself in front of [Doezema], causing [Doezema] to be fearful of him turning his anger and violence on her.”
Vitalis said he did shove her, but that it was after repeated attempts to get her to leave his room, and that he never engaged in violent conduct toward her, but did punch a wall during an argument.
Vitalis is the first student to receive expulsion as a sanction directly from the Office of Student Life for sexual misconduct in the past five years, according to expulsion records and Cocke. But decisions are not considered final until the deadline for appealing them has passed, and Vitalis’ appeals deadline was June 26, after graduation.
The other case of expulsion for sexual misconduct in the past five years came from an appeals board, not the Office of Student Life.
Sledge found the student in this case responsible for forced penetration and genital-oral contact, constituting sexual misconduct, and initially sanctioned him with suspension in November 2015. The suspension was to start after his final exam of the quarter (which was around a month away at that time) and last for seven quarters or until the survivor was no longer attending Western, according to disciplinary records.
The student found responsible appealed the decision in November 2015, saying he thought the sanction was disproportionate to the findings.
The survivor prepared for the worst and made plans to transfer to a school across the country in case he was allowed back while she attended Western, she said in a May interview.
At the appeals hearing, she had to sit in the same room as the student found to have sexually assaulted her. The survivor said Sledge told her it was optional to attend, but encouraged her to be there so the appeals board could put a face to her case.
Alumna Melissa Luper, the survivor’s resident advisor at the time, went with the survivor to the hearing. Luper said the accused wasn’t supposed to be able to look at the survivor, but they were able to see each other.
“Under what circumstances is that acceptable if you have other options?” Luper said. “She didn’t have a choice. Of course she wants the appeals board to side with her.”
Sledge did not respond to requests for comment regarding this case.
In April 2016, the appeals board made up of students, faculty and staff agreed the suspension wasn’t proportionate to the investigation findings—but because it thought the sanctions were too light given the “egregiousness” of the case, according to the findings letter written by the board chair. The sanctions were increased to expulsion.
In his appeals hearing statement, Sledge said that while the student conduct process is educational, he had strongly considered expulsion.
“I think that shows Sledge isn’t really the best person to handle these cases when everyone agrees he should have been expelled,” the survivor said.
The survivor said she might have gone to the police instead if she had known earlier that Western’s educational focus would affect the results of her case to such a large degree. She originally didn’t go to the police because she didn’t want her parents to find out and was worried about how her mutual friends would react, she said.
“I had so many reasons not to go to the police that I didn’t, but it would have been nice to have that opportunity because I was under the impression the school would have handled it better,” she said.
She also questioned if the process is having the educational impact it hopes for, as she doesn’t feel like the student she reported learned anything about consent.
Luper said she thinks it’s a problem that expulsions aren’t more common in cases where students do report.
Katie Plewa Olvera, a former CASAS coordinator who now has her own private practice as a psychologist and teaches courses at Western, said not all survivors will want expulsion. But when they do, she said they should be listened to.
“If [survivors] want expulsion, they have the right to pursue that and the fact that they’re not getting that is certainly concerning,” she said. “The question arises of whose needs are you really prioritizing?”
Plewa Olvera said the university and legal systems are not fit to handle sexual violence and trauma. Survivors have to navigate imperfect systems that try to determine if something happened based on evidence, she said, which is difficult since sexual assault is hard to talk about and prove.
“For those reasons, these systems inevitably end up failing survivors,” Plewa Olvera said.
She said she thinks another reason for the lack of expulsions is risk aversion and not wanting to be sued.
At a March meeting, Western’s work group on sexual violence response and prevention heard from Planned Parenthood Generation, a student club that organized a postcard campaign to get Western to stand against sexual assault.
“We want to make sure Western is a place where students can report these things and where perpetrators don’t just get off with a slap on the wrist,” they said, according to meeting minutes. “There is a general feeling among students that perpetrators aren’t getting punishments that match the severity of the crime.”
The representatives told the work group students would be more likely to report their cases if they felt going through the process was worth it.
Incidents of sexual assault are underreported and perpetrators of sexual assault often receive minimal to no legal or social consequences for their actions, said Sarah DeGue, senior health scientist in the research and evaluation branch of Center for Disease Control’s division of violence prevention, in an email.
Stronger consequences, or even just more cases that resulted in some kind of consequence, could enforce that sexual violence is seen as unacceptable and criminal behavior, DeGue said.
In a June interview, Melynda Huskey, who has overseen the Office of Student Life since she assumed the role of vice president for enrollment and student services last summer, said she’s concerned hearing students’ frustration that sanctions haven’t reflected the seriousness of findings.
Huskey said she feels strongly that it is appropriate to consider expulsion as a sanction when the respondent has caused harm to an individual and to the community, and she has told this to her staff. But since every case is different, she said, and they can’t implement the same sanction in each case.
When asked what she hopes for going forward, one survivor said, “A zero-tolerance policy, making an example of people who are punished and actually punishing them so people know they can’t just do whatever and get away with it.”
Bellingham attorney Larry Hildes, who has represented survivors at Western in the past, agreed.
“It’s wrong. It needs to be punished,” he said. “Everybody has a right to an education but nobody has the right to sexually assault someone.”
Plewa Olvera said justice looks different for all survivors and can look different depending on what system survivors are interacting with. She said universities should be handling these cases, but need to listen to what survivors want.
“They really do need to be prioritizing the survivor’s needs and prioritizing the survivor’s desired outcome, and it starts with them taking it seriously from the very beginning,” Plewa Olvera said.
Not giving survivors their desired outcome
As part of the conduct process, survivors are asked what their desired outcome is. But records show survivors don’t always receive them.
In 2015, a student reported that she blacked out from drinking and woke up to find herself on the floor, with a male student on top of her groping her. The survivor’s uncertainty of that night caused her to worry for months, Sledge told the accused student in an email.
The student admitted to kissing and groping the survivor while she was intoxicated and was found responsible for sexual misconduct. Sledge sanctioned him with conditional status, meaning further violations of university policy “may result in his suspension.” Sledge also required him to write an apology letter at the survivor’s request, complete an alcohol education course and follow a no-contact order.
Emails show the survivor was confused about what was happening with the case and said she got the apology letter in an email before Sledge had even sent her the final decision. The survivor’s father also emailed Sledge saying the survivor was stressed out and further hurt by the process.
After receiving the final decision, the survivor filed an appeal because she felt the punishment was too light for the findings. In the appeal, she said she researched state law and thought what happened to her was similar to the definition for an indecent liberties charge, which she wrote is a class B felony and could result in up to 10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines.
The survivor said that sexual misconduct is a serious violation of local, state and federal law that the conduct code allows suspension for.
“It took a lot of courage for me to come forward and report what [he] did to me. For eight months I struggled between remaining a silent victim or standing up and obtaining justice for myself,” she wrote in the appeal, calling Sledge’s decision “half-served” justice.
It took three weeks for the Office of Student Life to respond to the survivor’s request for an appeal.
The appeals board agreed the sanctions were not proportionate to the violations committed, but didn’t change the sanction to suspension like the survivor hoped. Instead, the board placed increased the student’s sanction to deferred suspension. This meant another violation of the student code would immediately, rather than possibly, result in suspension. The board also added a requirement that the student complete a written education assignment about consent.
In a different case from 2013, Western found a student responsible for sexual misconduct after the survivor reported he groped her. The student found responsible received a deferred one-year suspension, which meant he was not actually suspended so long as he didn’t violate campus policy again, and was given a no-contact order for one year. The survivor wanted the no-contact order to continue until she graduated, but Sledge told her no-contact orders have no set amount of time and directed her to seek a court-ordered protection order instead, email records show.
In a case from 2015, Sledge found the accused student responsible for sexual misconduct and conduct that threatens health or safety and suspended him for one year. The accused and his lawyers filed an appeal. Dean of Students Ted Pratt acted as the appeal board, because the full board did not convene in the summer, according to an email Pratt sent the accused.
During the appeal process, a counselor and multiple friends sent Pratt testimonies about the toll the accused’s presence had taken on the survivor, asking him not to be readmitted. Multiple testimonies also said he was a repeat offender.
But Pratt decreased the student’s sanctions, finding him only in violation for choking the survivor but not in violation for sexual misconduct. His sex offender evaluation was reduced to a psychological evaluation of his threat to campus safety and completion of any recommended treatments, and his suspension was decreased from one year to just one quarter.
Hildes, the survivor’s defense attorney, said he felt the dean didn’t listen to the survivor or what she wanted. He said Western’s process could be more empowering.
“When we take on clients, part of the goal of what we do is win or lose, the client comes out stronger at the end of the case,” he said. “This is a process that should be empowering [survivors] to feel like they have control, that they have the say in what happens.”
Three months after Pratt lowered the sanctions, Sledge re-increased the suspension because the student violated the no-contact order.
By that time, the survivor graduated, ending an almost year-long process.
Questions sent to Cocke for Pratt about this case were not answered. Since this case, the the conduct code added a level of appeal, meaning that appeals go to the appeal board and then can be reviewed by the dean of students, instead of just one or the other.
Schools aren’t educating or rehabilitating perpetrators
Plewa Olvera said universities need to think about what happens after expulsion, as she doesn’t want students put into another community to sexually assault someone again. She said this isn’t something for survivors should have to worry about, but that society needs to get better about holding perpetrators accountable and treating them.
“I think the problem is thinking we’ve done our job and this person can’t be here for this period of time and that alone is enough, when its not. All we’ve done is said you can’t be here anymore,” she said. “So were teaching that person nothing.”
In two cases that have been reported on, students have been readmitted to Western after being found responsible for sexual misconduct and suspended. In one case, a student had to go through sex offender treatment before re-enrolling, which Cocke said was rare.
Administrators have said they evaluate students before readmitting them to make sure they aren’t a threat to student safety, which can include staff from the counseling center, university police and the dean of students.
Plewa Olvera said she’s concerned because there isn’t anyone at Western she knows of who has special knowledge in working with perpetrators and changing that behavior. She thinks an expert should be brought in.
Julie Reimann, a counselor in Bellingham and a previous counselor at Western, agreed that the topic of consequences is complicated. She said while some perpetrators are unlikely to be rehabilitated, and maybe should be banished from campus, others are capable of learning and growth and should have the opportunity to contribute to society.
“There definitely need to be consequences for those behaviors. But ultimately, I don’t think it benefits anybody for someone to not finish their education,” she said.
She said differentiating between the two groups is difficult, and she is concerned that therapy is not always required as a sanction by the Office of Student Life when there is a finding of sexual misconduct.
Administrators discuss change
Huskey, who assumed her role as vice president last summer, said she has been auditing the offices under her position to fully understand their processes before making any changes. She said she’s concerned students are frustrated with sanctions, but doesn’t feel this requires an immediate change.
“I don’t see an immediate challenge with the idea that the Office of Student Conduct would issue sanctions in cases,” Huskey said in a June interview.
Huskey said one idea she does want to work on in the long-term is involving students more in the conduct process.
Allison Giffen, past faculty senate president, said Huskey has talked to her about making changes and evaluating the Office of Student Life, but the process is moving slowly.
“The question is: Is she going to walk the talk?” Giffen said.
Giffen said she told Huskey about her concerns with the Office of Student Life before she assumed her role of vice president.
While the Office of Student Life no longer handles investigations, some feel its reputation of handling cases in the past keeps students from wanting to report to the university at all.
Giffen and Vicki Hsueh, director of the women, gender and sexuality studies program, were among a group of faculty who urged the former vice president for enrollment and student services, Eileen Coughlin, to respond to survivors’ concerns with the Office of Student Life in 2016.
“I don’t undertake the task of criticizing someone else’s job performance lightly,” Hsueh said. “But so many students had come to talk to me about how inhospitable and unheard they felt when they went to that office.”
Giffen and Hsueh said the office’s reputation is still salient, although more focus now seems to be on what students perceive as light sanctions.
“Students are really really good at assessing how institutions don’t live up to their commitments,” Hsueh said.
In an email sent to staff on June 19, Randhawa said administrators would focus on accountability and “more serious consequences for proven violations” in cases of sexual misconduct.
At a work group meeting in May, Guenter-Schlesinger said by providing the Western community with transparent criteria and levels of sanctions, such as low-, mid- and high-level sanctions, Western could create a guidance that documents how discipline is determined, according to meeting minutes. This could create consistency, she said.
“It is important to ensure we are doing what’s appropriate and in everyone’s best interest, and that it’s consistent,” Guenter-Schlesinger said, according to meeting minutes. “We learn a lot from the criminal justice system, but the criminal process in onerous. We hope more students will come to us for an administrative remedy.”
Huskey also said there is value in having parallel judicial and campus processes available to students that can respond to the circumstances differently, and she is not prepared to make any part of the conduct investigation similar to the criminal process.
Legal and university systems
Some other Washington universities have turned to outsourcing their investigations to a more judicial approach.
WSU contracts administrative law judges, who oversee all cases that could result in expulsions or suspensions of 10 days or more. This change followed a court decision prompted by a lawsuit from a student, which required WSU and other public universities use a full adjudication process in student conduct hearings when suspension or expulsion were possible sanctions.
From the January 2017 to April 20, 2018, Washington State University expelled 10 of 20 students found responsible for sexual misconduct, according to public records.
Eastern Washington University adopted a full adjudicative process in September 2017 and contracts administrative law judges, Timothy Orton, Eastern’s director of student rights and responsibilities, said in an email. These judges have experience with sensitive and complex hearings involving attorneys, he said.
Eastern’s old procedure had resulted in five expulsions and eight suspensions leading up to this policy change between September 2015 and November 2017, Orton said. Since the first sexual misconduct case heard by an administrative law judge in December 2017, there have been three suspensions at Eastern, with one reversed on appeal, he said.
Currently, both parties are allowed to have a support person during the appeal hearing at Western, but lawyers are not allowed to talk for their client during hearings.
Huskey said the appeals process at Western is what most closely resembles the judicial system. Currently, all appeals follow guidelines set up by Washington’s Administrative Procedures Act.
Title IX coordinators from across the state are discussing making university appeals processes exempt from the act, Huskey said, to make the process more separate from the law.
Hildes said while he understands students not wanting to go through the legal system for sexual misconduct cases, he feels the university system doesn’t allow survivors enough protection.
Hildes represented the survivor in the case where Pratt decreased sanctions after an appeal. He said the Office of Student Life insisted the survivor be the only one to talk and didn’t seem to understand the power dynamics of having the respondent and the survivor in the same room during the appeal.
He said lawyers should be able to protect and speak for the survivor if they wish, as it’s difficult to talk about what happened repeatedly.
“If she wants to speak, we are happy to have the survivor do as much of the talking as they want to do in the situation, but they need to have the option not to,” he said.
In Doezema’s case, Sledge told her she didn’t need to be present for the appeal hearing, if she didn’t want to be in the same room as Vitalis. She didn’t. Instead, she submitted a written statement and waited in the hallway outside of the room.
In the statement, Doezema wrote that she supported the decision by Stillwell to expel Vitalis, especially given he’d already walked the graduation stage after being found in violation of the student conduct code.
“The #metoo movement is not about revenge,” her statement read. “It’s about saying no and standing up to those who use their power to put others down. It’s about speaking out for others by speaking up for yourself. I refuse to be silent.”
Editor’s note: Reporter Rebekah Way did not interview or edit content from Julie Reimann, who she has a professional relationship with. Way and Asia Fields did not interview one survivors because they had classes with them in the past. Western Front Editor-in-Chief Eric Trent did not edit the story due to a conflict of interest.