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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Western looks to clarify policy on domestic violence

Western’s Student Rights & Responsibilities code is undergoing changes to update its sexual assault and domestic violence policy.

Western is one of more than 100 colleges and universities around the country that are being investigated by the Department of Education under Title IX for mishandling of sexual assaults. Investigations on Western’s handling of the cases began Sept. 30, 2015.

“I don’t ever want anyone to hesitate to call 911 or summon emergency assistance for someone who needs it because they think they will get in trouble.”

University Police officer Todd Osborn

The Student Rights & Responsibilities committee — made up of five students, one faculty member and four staff members from various departments around the university — is in charge of drafting the changes. The committee hosted public comment sessions to receive feedback on potential code changes on Wednesday, May 4, and Thursday, May 5 in the Viking Union. No students attended the drop-in sessions.

Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge, head of the committee, said changes focus on clarifying and detailing university policy on issues such as stalking, domestic violence, dating violence and sexual misconduct.

“That means that there are new sections that spell out behavior that was previously covered, that we are now being very specific on prohibiting,” Sledge said.

Committee member and University Police officer Todd Osborn shared Sledge’s sentiment.

“The changes that we’re recommending will serve to clarify some things that may have been ambiguous before,” Osborn said. “I don’t think that there was a lot that was terribly wrong with the code beforehand.”

The comment sessions are part of the university’s larger plan of updating student-conduct codes in order to help regulate student behavior and ensure Western complies with federal regulations on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Several other proposals were included, such as a policy that would require any student arrested for a felony, violent crime, weapon-related crime, kidnapping or sexual assault to notify the dean of students of their arrest.

“The philosophy behind the code is that if someone is in violation, our goal is for them to be held accountable, but to do that in a way that allows for learning on their part.”

Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge

The university would then cooperate with law enforcement and consider punishment for the student. Punishment can range from sanctions, such as counseling or treatment services, to suspension or expulsion in extreme circumstances.

One proposed change clarifies a policy of amnesty for students who seek medical assistance for themselves or others without fear of criminal consequence. This supports a Washington state law passed in 2010 that protects ‘good samaritans’ from prosecution. One example of this would be a friend calling emergency responders to aid a friend who was overdosing on drugs or alcohol, without fear of being arrested for possession or use of an illegal substance.

“I don’t ever want anyone to hesitate to call 911 or summon emergency assistance for someone who needs it because they think they will get in trouble,” Osborn said. “ Simply enforcing the code is not the most paramount thing when someone’s life may be in danger.”

Sophomore Jennifer Leirness, a committee member, was chosen by the Residence Hall Association to provide student perspective on the proposed changes.

“I like the addition of the amnesty policy because the code is supposed to be an educational process,” Leirness said. “The policy doesn’t get you in trouble, it will find you resources for when you need to not be afraid to use the code.”

The Student Rights & Responsibility committee will review the comments made during the sessions on Monday, May 9, Sledge said. From there they will decide whether or not to alter the recommendations before they are sent to the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Eileen Coughlin.

If Coughlin approves the changes, they will have to move through several more levels of approval before finally reaching the Board of Trustees for implementation sometime in August, Sledge said.

“The philosophy behind the code is that if someone is in violation, our goal is for them to be held accountable, but to do that in a way that allows for learning on their part,” Sledge said. “It’s not intended to be punitive, but there are a few instances where someone will be suspended or very rarely expelled.”

A copy of the proposed changes can be found online and suggestions can also be emailed to Student.Life@wwu.edu.

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