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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Office of Civil Rights coming to Western

The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education is coming to campus on Sunday, Nov. 1 through Tuesday, Nov. 3.

This comes as part of an ongoing investigation into Western’s response to sexual discrimination and misconduct after a student issued a complaint in April, according to the OCR. Details of when the complaint was issued or how Western handled it have not been released.

In a mass email sent to students, faculty and staff on Oct. 21, the OCR invited the Western community to participate in listening sessions and one-on-one meetings to discuss the current approach to sexual discrimination issues.

“The university is preparing for the OCR visit primarily by widely publicizing the visit to our campus community,” said Paul Cocke, director of Western’s Office of Communications and Marketing, in an email.

Western is one of about 140 universities throughout the nation under investigation of handling allegations and complaints of sexual misconduct under Title IX, Cocke said. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

Sophomore Phaolan Class said she thinks that while most groups at Western are aware of the on-campus resources available for students who experience sexual assault, she is unsure about how effective they really are.

If a sexual assault were to happen, it may not necessarily be solved by the on-campus resources, she said. She said she is glad that a conversation has at least started.

“I think it’s pretty great that they’re taking the student’s side as well,” Class said. “There’s definitely insight to be gained from all the faculty and staff, but the students are really where the problems are, so it’s good that they’re actually listening.”

In the event of sexual misconduct carried out by a student, Western’s current approach is to refer them to Consultation & Sexual Assault Support (CASAS), the Counseling Center and/or the Student Health Center. Western also encourages affected students to report the incident to the police, Cocke said.

“Western is deeply committed to students’ safety and well-being,” Cocke said, “Survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence have the right to support from Western even if they choose not to file a complaint.”

Community resources are also available to students, such as Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) in downtown Bellingham.

During the OCR’s visit, DVSAS will be on campus offering to help students find one of their advocates during one-on-one office hours.

An advocate is someone who has had training in helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. They provide emotional support and/or crisis intervention, said Karen Burke, executive director at DVSAS.

“The main job of an advocate is to listen with an educated ear and to provide a lot of information and options so that survivors are really well-educated in what options they have,” she said.

Students wishing to file a complaint about sexual violence involving another student can contact the Student Conduct Office, Cocke said. For cases involving faculty or staff, students can contact Sue Geunter-Schlesinger, Western’s Title IX coordinator or the Equal Opportunities office, he said.

Editors note: In a previous version of this article, The Western Front misdated the OCR visit. 

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