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WWU pledges better response to victims after review of threats

A student walks through Red Square on the Western Washington University campus Sept. 16, 2013. A 2016 review of how WWU police and officials responded to threats against students lauded many aspects but found areas to improve.
A student walks through Red Square on the Western Washington University campus Sept. 16, 2013. A 2016 review of how WWU police and officials responded to threats against students lauded many aspects but found areas to improve. The Bellingham Herald

Western Washington University police and officials responded appropriately after a threat against a student prompted cancellation of classes in November, according to a consultant’s report released March 2.

However, consultant John N. Vinson, the chief of police at the University of Washington, made several recommendations to improve WWU’s responses to threats and to student safety concerns. Among those are to better support student victims, to develop ways for students to express concerns, and to improve leadership training in case key personnel are unavailable when a crisis happens.

University officials, in a March 1 written response to the report, agreed with many of Vinson’s recommendations. Most of the changes are expected to be in place by the end of summer.

“The consultant found that the University Police investigatory process was comprehensive, complete and in compliance with law enforcement best practices,” WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said in an email. “The university, in all its operations but especially in safeguarding campus, is always looking to improve and will make use of lessons learned and recommendations of the consultant’s report going forward.”

Vinson was asked to review the university’s response to a social media posting that escalated into a cancellation of classes last fall.

Early on Monday, Nov. 23, a post on the social media platform Yik Yak said “let’s lynch her,” in reference to Belina Seare, president of the Associated Students of WWU. After more posted threats and concern from Seare and other students for their safety, the university canceled classes Nov. 24. No classes were to be held Nov. 25-29 because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

An investigation led to WWU sophomore Tysen Dane Campbell, who was charged with malicious harassment, under Washington's hate crime law. His trial is tentatively scheduled for mid-May.

Seare and other student leaders at the university criticized WWU’s response to the threats, saying officials and university police didn’t do enough to protect students of color who felt threatened.

15.8 Percent of ethnic minority students at WWU in 2005

24.8 Percent of ethnic minority students at WWU in 2015

Student leadership requested the outside review. WWU officials chose Vinson because they felt he could provide a “candid, objective and professional assessment of the university’s response,” Cocke said. While the final bill isn’t in, the review cost was not to exceed $10,000.

The students didn’t object to the choice, according to Cocke. Vinson noted in his report that while he exchanged emails with Seare and the Associated Students vice president, he was never able to set an interview time and they never submitted written comments for the review.

FINDINGS, RESPONSES

Vinson complimented the university on many aspects of its response, including convening emergency meetings in the middle of the night, seeking help from other law enforcement agencies and administrators cutting off vacations to return to campus.

Here are some of his findings, recommendations for improvement and the university’s responses:

Finding: The university’s response after the threat was first reported might have been delayed because all the vice presidents were away at an event, and with the long holiday that week other key decision makers were out of office. Recommend developing protocol and training other senior leadership to take over in such absences.

University response: While WWU has trained upper leaders for various emergency response roles, the November events showed that didn’t reach far enough to ensure necessary backup. Additional people will be trained to step in starting in summer.

Finding: WWU didn’t have specific, immediate ways for students — both the victim and others — to express safety concerns. Also Seare and others didn’t feel university police were responsive to their needs and their concerns about safety. And nowhere was it documented they were directed to available resources to help them other than a single card listing some places to turn. Recommend offering avenue for concerned students, improving connecting victims with available resources, consider hiring a full-time victim advocate, develop a victim-centered approach to help students navigate the criminal justice system, ensure university police are trained in working with trauma victims and create a campus security advisory committee that addresses both public safety and improving relations between the police and students.

University response: Will find a better structure for hearing student concerns and have an emergency team leader ready to handle that; examine current student victim support and possibly hire a victim advocate; add trauma-informed training for university police; develop a campus security advisory committee to be in place by the end of summer.

The university also plans to adopt a recommendation to better define the roles of its emergency teams and improve record-keeping.

Seare did not respond to Bellingham Herald requests for comment on the report and the university’s response.

STUDENTS ISSUE LIST OF DEMANDS

Students who were upset with the university’s response to the incident continued to criticize WWU leaders for failing to address their safety concerns and what they said was racial and sexual violence across campus.

On Feb. 12, a group of them spoke at a WWU Board of Trustees meeting and demanded the trustees meet with them Feb. 26. The trustees did not, instead saying they would set a future meeting and invite the Associated Students leaders.

The group, which is calling itself the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation, made public a list of demands sent to the university and created an online petition. Among those demands were:

▪ Creation of a College of Liberation and Power, with 10 tenure-track faculty approved by the Student Assembly for Liberation and Power.

▪ A new building funded by the university for that college; in the interim, use of another college building.

▪ Creation of the Office for Social Transformation, a paid 15-student committee that would “monitor, document, and archive all racist, anti-black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ablest, homophobic, islamophobic, and otherwise oppressive behavior on campus.” All faculty, staff and administration would be subject to citations and a three-strike disciplinary process.

▪ A mandatory online survey to ask questions that allow WWU community members to confidentially express concerns of discrimination and safety. The results would be used for reviews of all people in teaching positions.

▪ Tuition reimbursement for any student who has “been targeted by, harassed by, or has experienced excruciating acts of violence that was racialized, sexualized, gendered, based on ability, employment status, citizenship and/or mental health from the University, either through its policies or institutional agents.”

All of these were to be started or implemented by spring 2016. The student group set a deadline of 5 p.m. March 1 for the university to respond and agree with the demands.

In response, WWU President Bruce Shepard sent the Associated Students a letter March 1 saying many of the demands needed to go through established university procedures from the bottom up, not top down. Adding a college and curriculum needs to start with committees of the Faculty Senate, he wrote. He also pointed out that the ideas lacked ways to fund them and that some would violate union contracts, university policies and federal law.

The group criticized Shepard’s response for putting the burden of changes on students. “Using highly politicized rhetoric, he attempted to claim that hxstorically (sic) marginalized students are getting their needs met by his ‘Task Forces’, the very Task Forces we have clearly named as not only ineffective, but also enforcers of the same forms of oppression manifested in the University,” the group posted on its Facebook page.

Representatives of the Student Assembly for Liberation and Power did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

The Board of Trustees held a special meeting Thursday, March 3, to go over university processes in an apparent response to the group’s demands. The 90-minute meeting included administration, Faculty Senate and Associated Students representatives, including Seare, Cocke said. Those in attendance also discussed areas to improve on those processes, including making sure student views are better heard by trustees, administration and the Faculty Senate.

Debbie Townsend: 360-715-2280, @HeraldDT

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