Victims say sexual assault cases are mishandled at Western
By Alex HalversonSince 2012, Western received at least four complaints about sexual misconduct investigations that victims said lacked sensitivity and transparency. Victims also said mild punishments are given to the accused, according to public records obtained by The Western Front.Sexual assault investigations are now handled by the Equal Opportunity Office rather than the Office of Student life, University Director of Communications Paul Cocke said.“The university determined it would be most useful for students if there was one single office that investigated these types of complaints,” Cocke said when asked why the EOO handles sexual misconduct investigations.
“The university determined it would be most useful for students if there was one single office that investigated these types of complaints.”
Complaints for light sanctionsLast year, The Bellingham Herald published an article which highlighted several Title IX violation cases against Western. One of the cases involved former student, Connor Griesemer, who was accused of second-degree rape stemming from a January 2015 incident, according to a sexual assault complaint in The Bellingham Herald. He pleaded down to fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation and was found in violation of Western’s Student Code on sexual misconduct. Griesemer received a no-contact order against the victim and was barred from Western’s campus until Sept. 6, 2016. He was allowed to complete his final exam of winter quarter 2015, according to a report obtained by The Western Front. He also spent 30 days in jail, according to The Bellingham Herald article.Griesemer declined to comment on the story, and it has not been confirmed by faculty that he is enrolled for the upcoming quarter.Another student in October 2014 was found forcing a classmate to perform oral sex on him and was barred from campus until June 30, 2016, in violation of the Student Conduct Code. The student was given a 25-foot no-contact order against the victim, according to a report obtained by The Western Front.Distance of no-contact orders can change depending on whether individuals share a class, which happened in a case covered by The Bellingham Herald.One complainant was concerned with the fact they could not receive definite reasons for sanctions made against their attackers, according to public records.Complaints for lack of transparency In January 2015, a female student reported two sexual assaults occurring over the duration of two years at Western, according to public records.Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge of the Office of Student Life issued no-contact orders to both students accused in the sexual assault complaint. Upon further investigation, Sledge and the university couldn’t find any evidence of misconduct, according to summarized interviews in the process review report. The no-contact orders were not dropped, but no further sanctions were given to the accused students, according to a timeline of the case.In a final report of the complaint, the student felt she was not given enough information as to how any final decisions were made in the investigation handled by Sledge.A student who filed a Title IX violation complaint toward the Office of Student Life, the EOO and University Police stated she felt Sledge discouraged her from filing a report with Bellingham Police Department by telling her only the negative outcomes of that option, according to the student’s statement in the report. Students filing a complaint of sexual misconduct at Western are able to file a report with BPD simultaneously, according to several sources on the final report.“[Sledge] told me he could ‘solve this, faster,’ if I didn’t file with the police and if I chose to be formal, it could ‘take years,’ before anything was done,” the student said in a letter filed with her complaint.The final report stated Sledge said he had no recollection of discussing the option to file a BPD report with the victim, but it is standard for him to walk through the delays and higher standards of proof involved with police department investigations.“While survivors are encouraged to report to Bellingham Police Department (for off campus incidents) or to University Police (for on-campus incidents), it is important that they make the decision,” Cocke said in an email.Complaint for lack of sensitivityA Western student, student A, filed a complaint on Dec. 8, 2015, against his roommate, student B, who was accused of continually sexually harassing him despite repeated direct requests to stop, according to a public record.Student A’s complaints against student B include repeated “sexual advances” and unwanted terms, such as “babe” and “boyfriend,” directed toward student A. After sexual advances subsided following a direct request to stop from a resident director, student A said student B started masturbating while the two were in the same room, according to notes on a Dec. 8, 2015, meeting between a resident director and student A.The resident director filed the complaints of student A in a Simplicity Incident Report and contacted Sledge notifying him of the incident.Sledge scheduled a meeting with student B regarding the complaints and was told student B made the comments jokingly, that they had been inside jokes dating back to high school where student A and student B had met each other. Student B also denied masturbating in the room, Sledge said in his response to the Simplicity Incident Report.Sledge emailed student A on January 13, 2016, saying he believed no violation occurred after the meeting with student B, according to the final report.The resident director felt Sledge’s email to the student could be perceived as condescending and in doubt of student A’s testimony because Sledge never met with student A and only worked off of the incident report, according to a statement in the final report.Student A filed a Title IX complaint with Title IX Coordinator Sue Guenter-Schlesinger and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Mohammed Cato, stating Sledge didn’t take the initial complaint seriously and had taken longer to respond than expected, according to a public record.A Title IX violation investigation into Sledge’s handling of the case found no violations. However, the investigation did raise some concerns in regards to how sexual harassment cases were handled by Sledge.The investigation concluded Sledge acted inappropriately by not scheduling a meeting with student A but scheduling one with student B, according to findings in the final report.Sledge didn’t notify student B of the allegations until just before winter quarter started, almost one month after the Simplicity Incident Report was filed. Student A said this caused additional anxiety, especially when visited by student B at work over winter break, according to the findings in the final report. The investigation stated students who complain of sexual harassment should be kept aware of the investigation process and found Sledge didn’t give student A enough information about what to do if contacted by student B, according to the final report.Though the investigation found Sledge’s actions worthy of improvement, no violation of Title IX was found, according to the final report.Recommendations for future reportsAfter the complaints against Sledge were filed, the EOO developed a formal list of recommendations for trainings regarding communicating with Title IX complainants. The recommendations, filed in May 2015, also included sensitivity training. The EOO gave Sledge advice on how he could handle sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints with more transparency to the complainant, according to a letter sent to Dean of Students Ted Pratt from the EOO obtained in a Western Front records request. The recommendations followed a meeting between Pratt and Guenter-Schlesinger in which the complaints of multiple sexual assault victims toward Sledge were discussed, namely his demeanor when he met with victims, according to the letter.Multiple complainants referred to Sledge’s tone as disrespectful and condescending, and said he reached decisions without further input from those who initially brought problems to his attention, according to a final report on the January 2015 investigation of two sexual assaults and the January 2016 investigation of repeated sexual harassment.The recommendations for Sledge included mindfulness training, a program to teach him how to be more sensitive of victim’s perceptions after an assault. Sledge was also recommended to take a thorough training on how to investigate sexual assault cases, including a component that is survivor-centered, according to the letter.Sledge was also recommended to discuss specific cases with the EOO before going forward with decisions and other findings.The January 2016, investigation regarding repeated sexual harassment, found Sledge could improve with staying in contact with the complainant, according to a final report of the investigation.The same improvement was suggested in the investigation of the January 2015 sexual assault cases, as the complainant felt she was not given enough information, according to the final report. The report agreed information was unfairly withheld from her.Since the suggestion by the EOO to take training sessions, Sledge has completed six training programs dealing with how to talk to sexual assault victims, be mindful of different identities and conduct sexual assault investigations.Changes in administrationSledge and the Office of Student Life handled the investigation of sexual assault cases prior to September 2016 when the EOO took over the responsibility, Cocke said.Sledge was not subject to any punitive actions following student complaints and could not be reached for comment as the Office of Student Life no longer investigates sexual misconduct complaints. He is still Western’s assistant dean of students.