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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Survey helps Western address sexual assault

For the past month, Western has been collecting feedback from students and employees through an online survey to help administration more effectively prevent, understand and respond to sexual misconduct on campus.

The survey, sent out by the Office of Survey Research and prefaced by President Bruce Shepard on Tuesday, May 10, closed to students on Wednesday, June 1, and will close for faculty and staff Thursday, June 2.

The survey consisted of questions concerning unwanted sexual experiences and how students felt Western handles sexual misconduct on campus. Students were asked if they are aware of specific resources offered through the university. Because many of the questions were specific and considered personal, Western made the survey voluntary and anonymous.

“The university’s approach is to be out in front of this issue [of sexual violence],” said Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, Western’s Title IX coordinator. “There’s no sweeping issues under the rug. If we have a problem, we want to deal with it head on.”

Title IX is a civil right protecting U.S. citizens from discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Guenter-Schlesinger has been enforcing the law’s implementation on campus for 11 years.

“We have a university that is truly committed to having a safe and discrimination free environment,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “Have we reached perfection yet? No. Has any school in the United States reached perfection? No.”

Western is working with offices around campus to better inform students on resources for sexual assault survivors, Guenter-Schlesinger said. Posters are being put up in every campus building with a list of various resources. Hundreds of posters have been distributed to the residence halls, the police station, medical center, counseling center and every academic department on campus.

Western is now one of 124 colleges and universities in the country, and one of four universities in Washington state, that is currently being investigated for possible violations of Title IX.

“Some sexual assault survivors don’t want to go to the police, so they have of options offered,” Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke said. “They can go to the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center, Consultation and Sexual Assault Support, the Dean of Students or the Equal Opportunity Office.”

Junior Zachary Landram took the survey and said Western can do more.

“Between the green coats, the emergency help buttons around campus and how well-lit campus is, I think a lot of good things are in place, but more can be done,” Landram said.

There were 12 reports of sexual offenses from 2012 to 2014, according to the university’s annual crime statistics spreadsheet.

Under Title IX, schools are required to resolve and respond to any hostile educational environments. If schools violate this requirement, they risk losing federal funding.

In 2015, Western came under fire when a female student who said she was raped reported the incident to the university and later said Western handled her case in an unprofessional and inconsiderate manner. The situation came to a head when the student found the accused rapist was allowed in the same class as them, although he had been issued a no-contact order.

When the student met with Dean of Students Ted Pratt to discuss concerns with Western’s reporting process, the student told the school they did not want to discuss details of the incident. The complaint reports that during the meeting, Pratt asked if the accused rapist had climaxed, causing the student to walk out of the meeting, according to the Bellingham Herald. The student said administration referred to the student by gender, although the student said they prefered gender-neutral pronouns.

“I feel like the people that are working in those offices, those that are designated to be responders for instances of sexual violence, need to be trauma-competent in some way, and they are very much not,” the student told The Bellingham Herald.

The complaint has lead to Western being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for violating Title IX. These federal investigations look at how schools have handled certain sexual assault cases.

Western is now one of 124 colleges and universities in the country, and one of four universities in Washington state, that is currently being investigated for possible violations of Title IX. The others are the University of Washington, Washington State University and Whitman College.

Guenter-Schlesinger said the information collected by the survey will inform and improve Western’s processes and prevention programs for sexual assault, in order to make sure sexual assault is handled as positively as possible moving forward.

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