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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Behind the series on how Western handles sexual misconduct cases

By Asia Fields

For years, student journalists at Western have been working to shine light on how the university responds to sexual violence. With this series, reporters Haley Ausbun, Rebekah Way and I wanted to build off this work to examine Western’s system, instead of individual cases, and see if it had changed since the university came under federal investigation in 2015.

The Western Front has possessed records since 2016 related to investigations under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in public schools. The records include cases from as early as 2010, but are an incomplete set. The student editor who requested them graduated before all of the installments were ready for pick-up, but passed on what he did receive. The sheer volume of these records, how quickly staff on the Front changes and how difficult it can be to report on sexual misconduct cases meant not much was done with them.

There were some stories. One in 2016 examined frustrations several survivors had with the conduct process and mentioned changes being made in response. The rest were focused on individual cases, and it felt like the Front was just chipping away at a much larger issue. These stories sparked student outrage and it was clear students wanted to know more about what the university was doing in response to sexual violence.


Read the series:
Sexual assault survivors frustrated with Western investigations despite changes to process
• Western expels second student in five years for sexual misconduct, but he was allowed to graduate
Current and former staff say Western isn’t doing enough to prevent sexual assault

Read previous stories from the Title IX records:
Victims say sexual assault cases are mishandled at Western
Student convicted of sexual assault readmitted
• Professor found responsible for sexual harassment, allowed to continue teaching
• Suspended for sexual assault, readmitted one year later


In April, we filed a request for records from sexual misconduct cases. We were only able to request cases going back to 2015 due to limited time. While we waited for those, we gathered information from survivors who responded to our posts on social media and looked at the records for sexual misconduct cases we already had. We were not able to reach out to survivors from the records, because Western redacts students’ names from them. But some cases still showed survivors’ frustrations through emails or statements they made to administrators. We identified trends of what survivors were frustrated with.

We were able to compare those with the experiences of survivors who had recently gone through the process, which we did once we received recent records and by following one survivor who reached out to us while Western was still investigating her case. We found out the person that survivor reported was another journalism student, Nickolas (Nick) Tadashi Vitalis. This is the second story the Front has published about a journalism student being found responsible for sexual misconduct by Western in the past three years.

The series took four months, as we followed Vitalis’ case. Reporters faced challenges including some unresponsive administrators and unreliable records.

As Western is a state agency, all records and communications it generates are public records, unless they meet specific exemptions. Even records related to sexual misconduct investigations are public, although the university takes out the names of students.

The state’s Public Records Act is clear that the public should have information on what government bodies are doing in their interest. A passage from the act reads: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

When we got records back from a request for records related to sexual misconduct cases from 2015 to April 2018, we felt there were documents missing. We contacted the records officer and she immediately confirmed three documents were missing and sent them to us.

The records we had indicated that only four investigations in which students were accused of sexual misconduct were completed by the Equal Opportunity Office since it took over investigations in fall 2016. That felt low to us, so we reached out to administrators. While the university spokesperson responded to our email, administrators did not respond to our inquiry.

While we were doubtful we received all the records responsive to our request, the records officer said she had sent us all the documents. So we published the article.

After the article was published, the records officer emailed us with documents related to five more cases and told us there had been a miscommunication between her office and the Equal Opportunity Office, which she said mistakenly thought she cross-referenced requests. Considering this was just discovered, this may have also impacted past requests.

This is why our first article has been updated since its original publication to say there were nine, not four, cases from fall 2016 to April 2018.

While that number is important, it should not be looked to as a complete picture of sexual violence at Western during that time period. The same goes for the number of records we analyzed in our reporting. As our stories mention, sexual violence is underreported. In addition, we still can’t be confident we have received all records, and we know we don’t have all records from before 2015. Previous reporting by the Front that states a specific number of cases were investigated should also be viewed with caution for these reasons.

The numbers also don’t include cases not labelled as sexual misconduct by administrators (some older cases in which actions could be seen as meeting the definition of sexual misconduct were labelled as harassment, for example). It also doesn’t include cases not investigated by the university, such as when students chose not to pursue an investigation.

Requesting records are often student journalists’ only way to find out information about specific cases, as university officials say they cannot talk about them due to federal student privacy law, or FERPA. This is also why Western redacts the names of all students from records, even though FERPA allows universities to disclose the name of students found responsible for violent or sexual offenses through student conduct systems.

FERPA also allows students to waive their privacy rights and give university officials permission to talk about specific parts of their record with third parties. In order to verify information and ask questions about survivor Mieke Doezema’s case, we gave administrators a waiver she had signed allowing them to discuss her case. However, we got no response, except from Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke, who said the Equal Opportunity Office would not discuss the case. “No matter how many ways you ask this same basic question the answer is the same,” he said in an email.

Many other questions were left unanswered, as multiple attempts to talk to some administrators were met with silence—or in Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge’s case, an email on June 11 from Cocke saying, “Michael Sledge let me know he is too busy and does not have time to respond to your questions.” We had been trying to contact him for weeks, and we tried for weeks after, receiving no response.

Other departments wouldn’t talk to us and referred us to Cocke, who did not answer all of our questions. In some cases, we were unable to find out why the university had handled cases in certain ways, or if practices had changed. So we had to rely on the records and survivor testimonies we had, as well as the interviews we did receive with some administrators.

We are passing on the records and information we have in the hopes that Western’s student journalists can continue shining light on the university process and hold administrators accountable. While our stories were unable to do everything, and were more effective at pointing out problems than offering solutions, we hope they provide a foundation for more work to follow.

Some survivors also had difficulty obtaining records—for their own cases

One of the Title IX investigations of Western is looking into a complaint that staff delayed response to a student’s requests for updates and records relating to their case. Survivors have the right to obtain the documents related to their case.

One survivor received only some of the records from her case from 2015-2016. She showed reporters the 13 pages of documents she had been given. Reporters had around 60 pages of documents relating to her case from previous records requests.The survivor did not receive investigation evidence; emails to the accused, including one where Sledge reviewed the case and explained how he determined sanctions; or a statement Sledge wrote for the appeal.

Timestamps printed onto the records show they were retrieved in January 2017, almost a year after the end of the case, meaning all the records the Front had were available at that time.

In 2014, a survivor asked for all records related to two cases she reported, but was initially told she couldn’t receive copies because Sledge misunderstood the records policy. Emails show when Sledge realized his error, she was provided copies of all documents requested.

“So to be clear, you violated the policy, you violated my rights in denying me the original document request and you didn’t review the records policy until re-prompted,” she emailed him after.

 

This three-part investigation came out of an advanced reporting course with professor Carolyn Nielsen. Read the stories, on investigationssanctions and prevention.

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