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Frontline: Western fails to support sexual assault survivors

Opinions of the editorial board

It is impossible to know how many college-aged women have experienced sexual assault. Statistics of one in four or one in five women are often referenced, but in my experience the number seems higher. Many of my peers have confided in me, pointed out the person who assaulted them and told me to be wary.

It’s hard to talk about sexual assault as a statistic because when it happens, it’s your best friend crying on the bathroom floor. It’s the passionate advocate who supports survivors now because they didn’t have support when it happened to them. It’s the feeling you get when someone asks if you know so-and-so, and you can’t speak because of the pain it causes you to remember what they did to you.

Infographic by Sophia Greif

When students go through the stressful, traumatic experience of reporting a sexual assault to the university, recounting what may be the worst moments of their life to a stranger, the burden is shifted to administrators on how to respond. How they proceed tells survivors if their experiences matter, and it sets the tone for how sexual assault should be treated in our community.

The university has shown a pattern of issuing lax sanctions in nearly every case, choosing suspension over expulsion for students who they find have committed sexual assault.

Reporting by The Western Front and the AS Review over the past year has revealed that the university is reluctant to expel sexual assault perpetrators.

In 58 reports of sexual misconduct filed with the university from 2009 to 2016 and obtained by The Western Front, just one perpetrator was expelled – through the decision of the appeals board, made up of students, faculty and staff, rather than the administration. The 58 reports were just the ones obtained by the Front. There could have been many more.

An article published this Monday by both publications showed the university suspended Peter Lagow for one school year in 2015 after it found he had sexually assaulted another student, only to readmit him in fall 2016. The survivor he assaulted had to see him on campus every other day during her last year at Western.

Students were outraged when Connor Griesemer, who was suspended in March 2015 when he was charged with felony rape of another student, was readmitted to the school in spring 2017.

The AS Review detailed two other cases where Western found students had violated the Student Conduct Code by sexually assaulting other students and suspended them instead of expelling them, allowing them the option to return to the university after their suspension.

The Student Conduct Code states that sanctions by the university, like suspension and expulsion, serve to educate students on the seriousness of their actions, reinforce the “high standards of behavior” expected of students and maintain the safety and well-being of the campus community.

The readmittance of sexual assault perpetrators does not maintain the safety and well-being of the campus community. In the event that a perpetrator is allowed to come back to campus as a student and attend classes, a primary concern is the well-being of the survivor. Having to see the person who physically, psychologically and emotionally harmed them can re-traumatize survivors. This jeopardizes their well-being in an obvious way.

This also puts other students in danger. If the administration is aware that a student has previously assaulted other students, why would they readmit them? This policy values the offender’s education over ensuring the safety of survivors and the campus community.

In an interview with The Western Front in fall 2017, Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge said Western does not often suspend or expel students because the goal of the Student Conduct Code is to hold students accountable in an educational manner, giving them a chance to “learn from their behavior.”

By using a traumatic event as a “teachable moment” for a student, the university is blatantly negating the experience of the survivor and undercutting the seriousness of the action they’re supposedly educating the perpetrator about.

Sledge and Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, the vice provost of the Equal Opportunity Office who handles sexual assault complaints, pointed out that Western’s complaint process does not compare to the criminal justice system, which requires more evidence to determine whether a student is guilty or not.

In an interview with The Western Front in fall 2017, Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke said if a student’s actions are “egregious enough” they are not allowed to come back to Western.

"By using a traumatic event as a 'teachable moment' for a student, the university is blatantly negating the experience of the survivor and undercutting the seriousness of the action they're supposedly educating the perpetrator about."

Expulsion is one of the harshest sanctions available to the administration, and they are obviously reluctant to administer it for sexual assault. 

If this is because they don’t feel that a single report of sexual assault since at least 2009 was egregious enough to expel a student from the university, the severity of the sanction shows how seriously the university takes sexual assault.

So what does warrant expulsion? The AS Review reported that Tysen Campbell is the only student the administration has expelled in the past five years after he made a comment on Yik-Yak saying “let’s lynch her” about then-AS President Belina Seare, who is black.

Direct threats to a student’s life are extremely serious and the administration acted with the safety of Seare and the rest of the community in mind. The difference between this case and sexual assault cases is that while there was clear evidence Campbell made this comment as it was posted online and traceable back to him, proving that sexual assault happened can be extremely difficult. If the survivor does not have a medical exam after the assault, for example, it’s often one student’s word against the other, corroborated by testimony from a friend or a neighbor.

If the administration is reluctant to expel students they find have violated the Student Conduct Code sexual misconduct policy, through investigations they deem rigorous enough to protect and support student survivors and punish assault perpetrators, either they do not believe sexual assault is an act worth administering the harshest sanctions for or they are not confident in the system.

The Western Front and the AS Review recently reported that Western withholds the names of students suspended for sexual assault from public records, so tracking how many students are readmitted after suspension for sexual assault is difficult if not impossible.

The university cited the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student records but explicitly allows institutions to release the names of perpetrators the institution found committed offenses like sexual assault in final disciplinary results.

"If the university is unwilling to remove dangerous students who have a history of assault from the community, students have a right to know."

In doing so, the university actively prevents students from knowing how many times perpetrators of assault have been readmitted. This creates a dangerous and unwelcoming atmosphere for survivors and sends a clear message that educating students who have sexually assaulted others is a priority over student safety.

If the administration is unwilling to remove dangerous students who have a history of assault from the community, students have a right to know.

Readmitting sexual assault perpetrators, failing to expel these students in the first place and a lack of transparency with students all show a breakdown on the university’s part to prioritize student safety and tells students they do not have to take this issue seriously. This creates a culture of tolerance for sexual assault and for repeat offenses.

The university’s tendency to favor education of perpetrators over the needs of survivors is creating a climate where students do not feel comfortable coming forward if they have been sexually assaulted, a crime that is already severely underreported both nationally and on campus.   

The university has a clear obligation to protect student safety and well-being, and the way that it handles these cases sets a tone for how the rest of the campus community should respond. Western should adhere to the firm policy it outlines for itself on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct: if it is really “committed to preventing, addressing and responding to sex discrimination” including sexual assault, it should respond in a way that prioritizes the needs of survivors and safety on campus before sympathizing with sexual assault perpetrators.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Taylor Nichols, Kira Erickson and Eric Trent.

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