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Students decry WWU sexual assault reporting process; investigation underway

Western Washington University student Taylor Malowney on campus in Bellingham Oct. 29, 2015. She is concerned with how WWU deals with reports of sexual assault after reporting she was raped two times.
Western Washington University student Taylor Malowney on campus in Bellingham Oct. 29, 2015. She is concerned with how WWU deals with reports of sexual assault after reporting she was raped two times. The Bellingham Herald

On the first day of winter quarter 2015, a freshman who reported being raped to Western Washington University officials months earlier walked into a class to find the accused rapist right there.

When the teacher asked students to go around in a circle and tell a story about power, the accused rapist brought up how the university had slapped him with a no-contact order to prevent him from being around another student — the student who happened to be sitting a few feet away.

“When he began to speak, I could feel my stomach sink and the air escape my lungs. I froze,” the student said. “When he explained that he ‘doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t do,’ I immediately left the room.”

This, according to the student, is one of many ways WWU mishandled the student’s report of sexual assault. Taylor Malowney, a senior at WWU, also reported she was raped to the university and thought her voice was not heard.

Michael Sledge, the assistant dean of students who hears all student conduct complaints, could not be interviewed for this article. Neither could other university personnel who deal directly with the reporting of assaults or counseling victims. WWU directed all questions for this article to university spokesman Paul Cocke. He would not comment on the specifics of any case while the school was under investigation.

12Forcible or non-forcible sex offenses reported on or near WWU from 2012-14.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April agreed to investigate the school’s handling of sexual violence cases. WWU is one of more than 100 institutions in the country under investigation for their compliance with Title IX standards, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. As of Sept. 30, Western is also under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for the school’s treatment of students with disabilities.

The student who fled class triggered both investigations by sending a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights in February 2015. The complaint accuses WWU of not handling Title IX cases appropriately, of silencing survivors of sexual violence by dismissing their cases and refusing to recognize harassment, and of discriminating against and under serving students with disabilities.

The complaint also says school personnel kept referring to the student by gender even though the student prefers gender-neutral pronouns. For this article, The Bellingham Herald is not referring to this student by gender and does not name people who report sexual assault if they choose to remain anonymous.

Federal officials will visit Western’s campus Nov. 1-3 as part of their investigation.

The complaint

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she met with a group of Washington college students over the summer who told her they often don’t know where to turn for help if they are victims of rape or sexual assault.

“And even when students come forward, schools are not always trained to help from a trauma-informed perspective, which leads to a negative experience for students and reinforces barriers to reporting,” Murray wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

You had this horribly traumatic experience, and to see somebody going about life as if nothing occurred — it would be horrible.

Karen Burke, executive director for Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County

The federal complaint filed by the student, whose name The Herald has withheld, details one such experience.

The student was allegedly assaulted in October 2014, several weeks into freshman year. A few weeks later, the student reported the incident to Sledge, the assistant dean of students.

Sledge, after interviewing both people involved, decided there was no violation of the student conduct code, according to WWU records.

A no-contact order imposed by the university remained in place: The students were to stay 10 feet away from each other in the class they shared and 25 feet apart while on campus. The accused student violated the no-contact order in December, and Sledge placed him on conditional status, meaning another violation could result in suspension, according to the complaint.

Sledge notified the student who filed the complaint that both students had signed up for the same class winter quarter. Sledge said he would try to transfer the accused student out of the class, according to the complaint.

After that encounter the first day of winter quarter, the student sent an email to Sledge to notify him the two students shared a class. The accused student wasn’t in that class again. The university did not discipline him any further, according to university records.

Karen Burke, executive director for Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County, urges rape survivors to separate their healing from any disciplinary action.

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.

Student whose complaint initiated a federal investigation

But how can victims separate the two if they are forced to encounter their alleged rapist?

“I have no idea,” Burke said. “I think that would be hugely traumatic, terrifying, and frustrating. You had this horribly traumatic experience, and to see somebody going about life as if nothing occurred — it would be horrible.”

When asked how the university prevents people from taking the same class if there is a no-contact order in place, university spokesman Cocke said the Office of Student Life tries to identify and address class conflicts before the start of each quarter. Campus police, he said, help enforce only court-ordered no-contact orders.

In February, the student filed a rape report with University Police. Officers delivered information from the police report to the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, but the case was dropped, according to WWU records.

The student then met with Dean of Students Ted Pratt with concerns about the reporting process from an “advocate’s perspective,” not wanting to go into detail about the October incident. Pratt, however, began asking questions, according to the complaint sent to the Office of Civil Rights.

During the meeting it was explained to Pratt that the student had a post-traumatic stress disorder episode during the reported rape and was unable to speak or move.

Pratt, according to the complaint, responded by saying that he understood and compared PTSD to his experiences with racism as a black man. He later explained that crying — as the student did while being assaulted — did not indicate a lack of consent because it could mean different things, according to the complaint.

The student left the meeting when Pratt asked if the accused student had climaxed, the complaint says.

“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,” the student said. “And they are very much not.”

The student has sought counseling through the university’s center for Consultation & Sexual Assault Support.

It’s nine or 10 months later, and I still don’t understand why nobody straight up told me the reason.

Taylor Malowney, on university’s decision

CASAS coordinator Katie Plewa, when contacted by The Bellingham Herald for an interview, said she was told by a supervisor that all requests from reporters not with the student newspaper needed to go through Cocke.

Reporting questioned

Some national statistics, such as a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, suggest that as many as one in five women are raped or sexually assaulted in college.

If those numbers held true at Western, about 1,600 of more than 8,000 current female students would be victims of sexual violence over the course of a four-year college career. That would translate to an average of roughly 400 instances per year.

According to federally-mandated statistics under The Clery Act on WWU’s website, a total of 12 forcible or non-forcible sex offenses were reported on or near campus from 2012-14.

Burke thinks it is “most definite” that the number of sexual violence cases is higher than what’s reported at Western.

“That alone should leave some curiosity as to the barriers for someone to report,” Burke said.

Senior Taylor Malowney said students don’t want to report sexual assaults because they don’t trust the process.

“They don’t want to talk to Michael Sledge, they don’t want to talk to anybody,” Malowney said. “They know the outcome is going to be no findings, and why bother?”

Malowney reported to Sledge in January 2015 that she was raped twice in the previous two years. She did not go to police because she said she did not want criminal charges filed.

She went to the university hoping to get a no-contact order, but that process for her, too, only added to her frustration.

Sledge, in both cases, decided not to discipline the alleged rapists and declined to keep no-contact orders in place. For Malowney, what was most troubling was that neither Sledge nor anyone else at the school would explain how that decision was reached.

She met with Sledge again, then went to other university offices trying to get an explanation.

Karen Funston, a Bellingham attorney who previously attended WWU, was asked by the university to conduct an investigation of how it handled Malowney’s case. Malowney provided a copy of that report to The Bellingham Herald.

Funston’s independent review, which was paid for by the university, concluded that Western made “no major violations” of Title IX requirements. The report did say, however, that the process “needs to be refined so that students are better served.” It also noted that the university should have given Malowney information regarding how the decision in her case was reached.

However, after the report was completed, Western identified aspects of the review that need clarification or correction, Cocke said. Funston has agreed to issue a follow-up document.

“Ms. Funston has discretion to decide whether the issues the university has identified are ones she wants to address further. The complainant can similarly choose to provide comments to Ms. Funston,” Cocke said.

Malowney said Wednesday, Oct. 28, that she was not aware there would be a follow-up to the report based on Western’s feedback.

“It’s nine or 10 months later,” Malowney said, since Sledge’s decisions. “And I still don’t understand why nobody straight up told me the reason.”

Cocke said giving students rationale for those decisions was not required of colleges until July 1, 2015, when the Violence Against Women Act regulations took effect.

“Western is adhering to that requirement,” Cocke said.

Disciplinary action

If a student is found to have committed sexual misconduct, disciplinary action can include expulsion, suspension or being denied or removed from on-campus housing.

In the last five years, no students have been expelled for sexual misconduct, according to a Herald review of student sexual assault reports from the university.

During the 2014-15 school year, reports show three students were disciplined by the Office of Student Life:

▪ One student was suspended until at least June 2016 after a woman reported he had forced her to perform oral sex.

▪ In another case, a resident adviser was evicted from on-campus housing after a student reported being molested in her bed at night in December 2014.

▪ In the third case, student Connor Griesemer was suspended until at least fall 2016, after a student reported he raped her after a party in January 2015.

Griesemer was charged with second-degree rape in Whatcom County Superior Court. He accepted a plea deal that reduced the charges to fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation, a misdemeanor. His sentence eventually was reduced to 30 days in jail, according to court documents.

It is intended to hold students accountable for their behavior and to do so in a manner that allows for learning and an understanding of their responsibilities as members of the Western community

WWU spokesman Paul Cocke, on student conduct process

Griesemer appealed the university’s suspension decision. Pratt, the Dean of Students, denied it, according to university records.

“It is unfortunate that you are so close to graduation and to have that journey interrupted by a bad decision influenced by alcohol,” Pratt wrote in the appeal decision sent to Griesemer. “I hope that this is a situation that is not to be repeated in your life experiences.”

The student, who was notified by Sledge of Griesemer’s suspension, has since sought counseling treatment for PTSD, according to court documents.

Cocke said the university decides to discipline a student if it’s more likely than not a violation occurred. The student conduct process, he said, is not intended to replace the criminal justice system.

“It is intended to hold students accountable for their behavior and to do so in a manner that allows for learning and an understanding of their responsibilities as members of the Western community,” Cocke said.

Burke, with DVSAS, said the criminal justice system is not set up to help rape victims heal. Universities in some ways are mimicking that culture, she said, because they still need evidence to discipline a student.

“You just want to see it’s cut and dry that it happened, and that person should be punished,” Burke said. “And in a perfect world that may be what would feel right. But we have this system where there needs to be enough evidence to say that person committed a crime.”

U.S. investigation

If the federal investigation finds Western is not in compliance with Title IX standards, the Office of Civil Rights and the university may reach an agreement in which the school commits to specific steps in order to comply with the regulations, according to a U.S. Department of Education letter provided by the student who filed the complaint.

The allegations also could be resolved by a resolution between the student and the university, or the university voluntarily agreeing to take remedial actions.

In a message to campus before the Office of Civil Rights visit, WWU President Bruce Shepard said the investigation will provide the school with an opportunity to review policies and practices related to sexual violence prevention and response.

“Our transparency and openness in speaking with OCR,” the message read, “will only further our commitment to preventing sexual violence at Western and to supporting survivors.”

The student who initiated the complaint is looking forward to that resolution.

“I did not file a complaint because of any negative feelings towards Western, but because the systems that survivors are enduring can be harmful, and have been for me,” the student said. “I want to make sure that it is brought to the university’s attention, so that they have the opportunity to make very necessary changes.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@<code_dp>bellinghamherald.com.

Reporting options

Western Washington University students who have been raped, sexually assaulted, harassed or who have experienced discrimination have the following reporting options:

▪  report to campus or city police;

▪  report through the student conduct process;

▪  report to Western’s Equal Opportunity Office, for discrimination complaints.

The last two options don’t require students to file a police report.

Students can seek counseling options through Consultation & Sexual Assault Support, which provides medical services, legal information and support for students. There is also a student counseling center, and students can seek medical treatment at the student health center or St. Joseph hospital.

A card with information about all of these resources is distributed to students when school personnel learn someone has experienced sexual violence, said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke. Posters with those resources are displayed in every academic building.

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