Content warning: this story contains subject matter regarding sexual misconduct.
From 2009 to 2016, 58 reports of sexual misconduct went through the student conduct office at Western. One out of the 58 reported cases ended with the expulsion of the perpetrator, according to redacted reports from the student conduct office.
In a 2016 campus sexual violence report conducted across Washington colleges and universities, one in five survey respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual assault while at Western. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they told someone else about the unwanted sexual contact.
Western’s student conduct code defines sexual misconduct as sexual harassment, sexualviolence, sexual assault, sexual coercion, rape, bullying and hazing. In many of the reported cases, months went by before action was taken against the perpetrator, according to the redacted reports. For some survivors, this meant continuing life on campus with the perpetrator.
Civil rights attorney Larry Hildes, and legal assistant Karen Weil, represented a student survivor in a case from 2015.
Weil and Hildes both stressed the seriousness of sexual assault and misconduct and the importance of an appropriate response to the crime. About one-third of the reported cases had sanctions that included educational activities for the perpetrator.
“If a student were to kill somebody on campus or were to seriously assault someone that did not have a gender relationship power dynamic to it, they wouldn’t send them to write an essay about it and to learn how not to do it again,” Hildes said. “They would be kicked out of the university and they would go to jail.”
Michael Sledge, assistant dean of students, said Western rarely expels or suspends students, as the philosophy of the code is to hold students accountable in an educational manner. He said students should be given a chance to learn from their mistakes.
“We rely on the fact that we’re not intending to punish people, we’re intending for people to learn from their behavior and to not repeat that behavior in the future,” Sledge said. “The decision about expelling someone basically means we’ve decided you will never, ever, ever be able to learn from this behavior and behave any better in the future, and that’s a pretty high threshold I think.”
There’s been only one expulsion reported to the student conduct office for sexual misconduct between 2009 to 2016, which occurred in 2015.
A student came to the Equal Opportunity Office with a complaint against another student who had coerced her into drinking while he remained sober. She said he later raped her, as the official report states.
He was suspended, issued a no-contact order, required to go through counseling and was expected to “explain and reflect upon this experience and what he has learned from his time away from Western prior to registering for classes,” according to the report.
Despite Sledge citing in the report that he “strongly considered” expulsion due to the egregious nature of the offense, the student was suspended the length of the survivor’s remaining time at Western and issued a no-contact order with the survivor.
It was only after the perpetrator requested an appeal for reduced sanctions that the student was expelled.
“In cases where we’ve found someone in violation of the sexual misconduct code for raping someone, that’s been a suspension,” Sledge said.
From 2011 to 2013, fewer than one-third of sexual assault cases on campuses nationwide resulted in expulsions, according to the data from the Department of Justice.
“How is the university treating other assaults versus sexual assault? For some reason it feels like it’s not a crime to them,” Weil said.
The university does not respond to reports of sexual misconduct the same way the police might, Sledge said.
“We can do what we do best, which is helping people learn,” Sledge said. “That’s what this is an institution of: higher education,” Sledge said.
But Paul Cocke, Western’s communications director, assures the university takes action against violations of the student conduct code very seriously.
“If it’s egregious enough, they are not allowed to come back,” Cocke said.
Sledge sees suspensions as a very serious sanction that can often work effectively as an expulsion.
“Historically, what we’ve seen for students who are suspended freshman or sophomore year, we don’t see them return to Western,” Sledge said.
Weil and Hildes were dismayed by the sanctions given to the perpetrator in the case they worked on.
“You ask the victim what she wants, you don’t tell her,” Weil said. “There is no absolute right to be at Western.”
Sledge said the survivor’s desired outcome is factored into sanctions, but it does not decide the sanctions.
“We’re not the criminal justice system. There is a criminal justice system, so if someone’s done something egregious that’s a crime, then they should face going to jail. I completely support that,” Sledge said.
Both Sledge and Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, vice provost of the Equal Opportunity Office, emphasize the difference between Western’s complaint process and the criminal justice system.
“Some people choose not to make any complaint and we honor that,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “Some people choose to go to the police. That has a very different standard of evidence if it’s going to be prosecuted.”
Sledge said the court system takes much longer and requires more evidence than Western, which he said handles reports relatively quickly.
“Our main focus is to empower, especially students, but empower survivors of discrimination and sexual violence to choose whatever avenue they feel they’d like to choose to resolve their issue,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“If it’s egregious enough, they are not allowed to come back,” Cocke said.
Hildes and Weil recommend that Western reform the response to sexual misconduct and focus more on prevention and options for survivors, including a 24-hour staffed office for survivors to go to and a book about sexual assault to be given to every new student.
As for sanctions, Western rarely suspends or expels students.
“We don’t have a lot of suspensions to be quite honest,” Sledge said. “Historically, when you tell someone that they’re permanently separated from the institution and any credits that they have here that can’t transfer are lost to them, we’ve historically viewed that as being really punitive and it just isn’t a sanction that we’ve historically imposed.”
Sledge estimated that about one-quarter to one-third of all suspensions issued between 2012-2016 were for violations related to sexual misconduct.
“Some people feel that any level of sexual misconduct should result in immediate expulsion, others feel there’s the possibility of rehabilitation,” Cocke said.
Hildes and Weil believe the former; that Western should have no tolerance when it comes to violations of the sexual misconduct policy.
“The punishment should be very clear,” Hildes said. “If there is evidence of a sexual assault, that person is gone, period. Off campus. Done.”
Determining sanctions comes down to four factors, Sledge said. First is the desired outcome from the complainant (survivor), second is looking at past practices, third is the safety of the campus community, and fourth is any past student code violations that may make the respondent a threat on campus.
“We’ve had, in the past, internal conversations around what we think are appropriate sanctions for specific behavior. It’s robust, there just aren’t any best answers right now that take into consideration everybody’s needs,” Sledge said. “I would say we pay attention to feedback, public feedback or private feedback around what people think are appropriate sanctions.”
To provide feedback on sanctions and the reporting process, students can call or set up an appointment with the Equal Opportunity Office or Sledge.
“I think it’s important that students feel satisfied with the process,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “These are types of issues that affect people at their core.”
Guenter-Schlesinger said they ask students involved in cases if they are satisfied with the process at the end, but she believes there is room for a more formal feedback mechanism.
“We want to make this a process that people feel comfortable using,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
Reports start at the Equal Opportunity Office where the report is filed. They compile the facts of the case and forward the report to the dean of students, where it is assessed to see if there is a violation of student code. After a code is seen to be violated, sanctions occur.
“Our job is to analyze, with fairness to all parties concerned, whether it’s more likely than not that the alleged behavior described in the specific allegations occurred or didn’t occur,” Guenter-Schlesinger said.
Both the survivor and perpetrator have two opportunities to request a review or appeal of the sanctions.
Hildes called for more training among staff at Western.
“Every administrator and every staff member, whether they’re likely to be dealing with sexual assault complaints or not, has to be fully trained,“ he said.
Sledge said faculty and staff are required to receive training from the Equal Opportunity Office.
“Training around this area, for me, has been career-long,” Sledge said. “I’ve been going to trainings basically every year, when offered, on how to be trauma-informed and responding to reports and thinking through how we address violations of the sexual misconduct policy.”
In 2016, the Equal Opportunity Office recommended that Sledge participate in further training to teach him how to be more sensitive to survivors after an assault, according to a letter from Guenter-Schlesinger. They also recommended Sledge be given thorough training on how to investigate sexual assault cases, including a component that is survivor-centered, after students complained he was disrespectful when handling their cases.
The Equal Opportunity Office works closely with the Office of Student Life, the Provost and Dean’s Office and the President’s Office to provide adequate training for issues regarding discrimination of any sort, Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“We are always open to providing clarification and training when we feel people could benefit from that,” she said.
To report a case of sexual misconduct at Western, students have a few options. They can file a complaint informally or formally. An informal complaint meets with both parties to resolve the issue. A formal complaint includes a written statement and then an investigation of which the school has 60 working days to complete. All complaints regarding sexual violence must be handled formally, Guenter-Schlesinger said.
“This is a process that continues to evolve. The national conversation around this has shifted significantly in the last three to five years. We continue to make adjustments to help someone make a complaint in as humane a way as possible,” Sledge said.
After the investigation, the student conduct board has 10 working days to issue sanctions.
Students unsatisfied with Western’s response to their cases may issue a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, as two students did in 2015.
In November of 2015, federal investigators from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights visited campus to investigate.
There are currently 351 active cases being investigated on campuses nationwide. The average time schools are investigated by the office is 1.9 years. Western’s case has been open for over two years now.
Guenter-Schlesinger said she is not able to provide detail or updates on ongoing cases.
Consultation and Sexual Assault Support (CASAS), the Student Health Center Campus Services, the Counseling Center, and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County (DVSAS) are all resources available for students experiencing sexual trauma.
CASAS welcome walk-ins and appointments. They can be reached at 360-650-3700. The Equal Opportunity Office provides reporting options or resources for students, faculty and staff, and can be reached at 360-650-3307. DVSAS’ 24-hour help line can be reached at 360-715-1563.