Behind the systems: Student questions the way Western handles sexual assault allegations
This story is the last section of a four-part investigative project from an advanced reporting course taught by Betsy O’Donovan. We contacted DeShaun Dowdy multiple times to set up an interview to provide him a chance to respond to the allegations being made in this series. Dowdy declined to comment.
Editor’s Note: One of the two women whose stories are told in this series has asked to remain anonymous for fear of their safety. We have granted them anonymity because of the stigma attached to sexual violence. She has had her name changed in the story.
Content Warning: sexual assault.
During fall quarter of 2015, just a few weeks into her first year at Western, Jade saw DeShaun Troy Dowdy, a Western student, perform his poetry during an open mic at the Underground Coffeehouse. Shortly after, she said they started hanging out and occasionally having sex.
“He came off as, like, a very confident and charismatic [person],” Jade said. “He placed himself in safe spaces.”
Jade said Dowdy quickly became manipulative. She said there was a time where he threatened to hurt himself so she would come over and spend time with him. She said one night, he offered her a drug, but she wasn’t sure what it was. After Dowdy repeatedly told her to take it, Jade did. The next day, she couldn’t remember much about the night before.
Thomas Zapata, Jade’s friend, said he and Jade met Dowdy at the same time. Zapata said Jade told him about that night shortly after it happened.
“[She mentioned] how horrible it was,” Zapata said. “She said she had, like, walked home in the middle of the night and I asked, ‘Why’d you walk home in the middle of the night?’ [And] she said, ‘I just had the worst night of my life. This horrible thing happened.’”
Read the other stories in this series
Title IX and EOO Process
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination and misconduct at any publicly-funded school. Western is required to investigate any complaints regarding sexual violence.
Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, Western’s Title IX coordinator, said in an email that the Equal Opportunity Office handles all complaints having to do with civil rights law, including the Title IX act.
Similar to the Office of Student Life conduct procedures, an investigation starts with a complaint in most cases.
According to the EOO’s website, the office implements civil rights laws that protect the campus population from any discrimination, including but not limited to race, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation.
Once a complaint is made, the office decides if action should be taken to protect those involved, Guenter-Schlesinger said. The EO Office helps students get interim measures, like an administrative no-contact order, but does not provide them. Interim measures can be provided by the assistant dean of students, the University Police, and other offices.
In addition, the reporting party is given information about resources and services, including the Counseling Center, Consultation and Sexual Assault Support and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services.
The standard of evidence in all discrimination complaint investigations is preponderance of the evidence reviewed. The EO Office investigator analyzes the evidence and decides whether the facts indicate that it is “more likely than not” that the behaviors outlined in an allegation occurred, and if they did, analyzes whether they rise to the level of illegal discrimination.
During the investigation, Guenter-Schlesinger said the investigator interviews witnesses for both parties and reviews any relevant documents before writing a report. There isn’t a general criterion for evidence needed to make a strong case, Guenter-Schlesinger said, because cases are so specific. If there isn’t sufficient evidence to support an allegation, then the investigator reports there is “insufficient evidence to reach a finding,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“The complaint report, in the case of student-on-student complaints, is sent to the student conduct officer, who reviews the report, makes findings regarding any student conduct code violations, and administers sanctions; the EO Office does not handle any sanctions or discipline,” she added in an email.
In the case where a conduct officer finds that a code was violated, the OSL will impose sanctions. Possible sanctions for students can include a no-contact order, suspension or expulsion from the university.
If the reporting party wishes to take legal action and files a criminal report, they would work with the Bellingham Police Department. In comparison to Title IX’s “more likely than not” standard, the standard of evidence for a criminal proceeding is proof beyond reasonable doubt.
After that night, Jade stopped hanging out with and contacting Dowdy. She said she was constantly worried about seeing him on campus, which became an even bigger issue when she started taking classes in the art department, where Dowdy was a major.
“It’s when I decided to become an art major that it really became a problem for me,” Jade said.
Between February and April 2018, Jade worked with Michael Sledge, Western’s dean of students, and the EOO to try to file a report against Dowdy. Jade said she waited to report her experience to Western because she didn’t feel like the university would listen to her.
She said in the art department, it was hard to avoid having classes with Dowdy. This is when she felt she had no option but to bring her experience to the university’s attention.
The OSL and EOO, and their procedures, are meant to maintain campus safety by holding students accountable for their actions. However, there are some students, including Jade, who say the systems are ineffective.
“I don’t want [him] to go to school here because I’m afraid he’s going to hurt more people,” she said.
Jade first visited Consultation and Sexual Assault Support on campus and spoke with Western’s CASAS coordinator at-the-time, Michelle Langstraat. After sharing her experience with Langstraat, Jade said she was encouraged to make a report with Guenter-Schlesinger.
Jade wanted to file a report, but she wanted to remain anonymous because she was worried about Dowdy’s reaction. However, the EOO uses their discretion in sharing information – complete confidentiality cannot be guaranteed.
In an email, Guenter-Schlesinger said “The reason we do not take anonymous complaints is that the respondent has the right to due process to respond to the allegations, and allegations are sufficiently specific such that they would reveal a complainant’s identity.”
Jade said she didn’t feel safe providing her name and was told there was not much to be done without it. A no-contact order was suggested, but Jade did not feel this was an adequate solution. She knew Dowdy would know she reported him when he received the order.
“I felt like Sue actually was trying to push things further, but it felt like she was working within a tight space as well because of all the regulations,” she said.
Jade’s next best option was to file a complaint at the OSL with Sledge. During her initial meeting with Sledge and Langstraat, Jade said they also told her she would need to provide her name on the official complaint. Jade said she still did not feel comfortable having her name attached to a complaint.
The goal of the student conduct process is to hold people accountable in an educational manner, Sledge said. The OSL does not take anonymous complaints, especially those with serious allegations of violence, he said, because it could result in a student losing their education.
Although the OSL needs names attached to a complaint, Sledge said the process does not require the person filing the complaint to meet face-to-face with staff from the OSL. A thorough written account with all the information could be enough, according to Sledge.
“I think a piece of that is fundamentally fair and I also think it keeps the process from being weaponized against just about anyone,” he said.
In order for the conduct process to continue, Sledge told Jade in an email that if she didn’t want to file a report with her name attached, she would need to find other people to report their experiences with Dowdy.
In an email Jade received from Sledge on March 9, 2018, he said, “I do not intend to burden, or pressure you in any way. I encourage you to have people with a complaint about [Dowdy] to contact my office, or the EOO if the complaint involves sexual assault or sexual misconduct.”
In past experience, Sledge said actively searching out people generally doesn’t work well. Those who wish to make a complaint are more likely to respond to a friend who has a similar concern, he said.
“My wish is that it was easier to report through the criminal justice system when there’s violence or when there’s sexual violence, and that it wasn’t such a difficult process,” Sledge said.
Jade had hoped sharing her story with Western would incite action or change.
“I feel like they didn’t take enough responsibility in trying to investigate for themselves vand in reaching out to people. It kind of felt like a lot of responsibility was put on me, which I couldn’t handle because I’m a full-time student,” she said. “This is already a traumatic experience.”
According to Lisa Fontes, a psychologist specializing in sexual violence, there are cases where reporting their experiences to the authorities can sometimes make a survivors feel worse.
“After a negative reporting experience, survivors often feel lonelier and less protected than before making the report. They feel more vulnerable. Their notion that the world is basically a safe place has been shattered,” Fontes said in an email.
Apart from feeling like her story wasn’t enough, Jade said she left with the impression that there was nothing that could be done.
“It felt like they weren’t even trying to do anything at all,” she said.
What happens now?
Lindsay Noel has continued receiving notifications on her Facebook post about Dowdy months after it was put up. She said the shear number of stories made her want to take action beyond her post.
“I was really overwhelmed at first,” Noel said. “And I mean at that point, all I could do was proceed. I couldn’t just stop there.”
Noel said since the post blew up, she and a friend have been contacting people and helping them write statements to bring to different organizations in the community. She said they originally tried to bring their collection of statements to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services and the EOO, but they got the same answer every time.
“I’ve gotten the same answer from everybody, which is we need the statement from the victim. We need these people to come forward. It can’t be a third party,” she said.
Noel has been helping people who have reached out make appointments with the EOO, DVSAS and CASAS. She said these organizations are open to listening and working with people, and the more testimonies they can collect, the stronger a potential case could be.
Comments scrutinizing Western have continued to pile up. One comment reads, “My daughter was planning to attend WWU, but if this is how they handle predators we will be looking into the [University of Oregon] now.”
Another tags Western’s Facebook page, reading, “Western Washington University, you’re about to be screwed when people realize you don’t take reports and complaints seriously.”
Noel’s post continues to spread even months after it initially went up. With over 800 comments on the thread, the sentiment among commenters and survivors is the same: Western needs to do a better job at protecting its student body.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, visit EOO, the Office of Student Life or CASAS to learn more about the reporting and support options available to you on and off Western’s campus.
Reporting contributed by Julia Phillips.