Western Washington University students have raised concerns over officials’ response after a volunteer track coach was arrested on suspicion of breaking into dorm rooms in November 2016 and trying on women’s clothes while they slept.
Tanner David Boyd, 26, of Bellingham, had pleaded guilty in a similar burglary case from 2014 days before Western Police arrested him on campus in November, according to court records.
The records also indicate that track and field coach Kelven “Pee Wee” Halsell knew about Boyd’s 2014 arrest and subsequent conviction. Western spokesman Paul Cocke said Halsell did not tell administrators about the previous arrest, and continued to let Boyd coach.
The Western Front, WWU’s student newspaper, first reported on Wednesday that Halsell knew about Boyd’s 2014 arrest and kept him on the team anyway. Halsell declined to comment for this story.
Boyd’s case was emphasized in recent complaints from more than 60 of the university’s resident advisers. The group, which issued a petition and letter to administrators earlier this month, say the university has not adequately addressed their concerns surrounding campus safety and various forms of harassment.
November charges similar to 2014 case
Boyd was booked into Whatcom County Jail the morning of Nov. 12, 2016, and later charged with two counts of residential burglary, attempted residential burglary and third-degree theft, according to charging papers.
Officers responded at about 2:15 a.m. that day to Highland Hall to reports of a suspicious man. Residents and an adviser saw Boyd standing in the doorway of one dorm before walking to another section of the building, where he tried handles only on doors labeled with female names, records say. Officers found Boyd in a dorm room on the first floor wearing a pink dress looking through drawers, according to police records and charges.
It just felt like that room was no longer my room anymore. It felt like a violation of my basic wants of not having random people go through your stuff.
Emily Gaston, victim of break-in at Highland residence hall
When asked, Boyd told an officer it wasn’t his room, and that he didn’t know why he was there, according to court records. Photos taken by police show Boyd wearing two bras, a pair of panties, a blue skirt, the pink dress and a red hooded sweater. Police also took photos of items found in the bushes outside the residence hall: a pullover, a WWU cross-country shirt, a pair of shorts, underwear and an unwrapped condom.
The room where officers arrested Boyd belonged to resident adviser Emily Gaston. She said she routinely left her door unlocked to be accessible to residents. She described the break-in as “surreal” and said she felt violated.
“It just felt like that room was no longer my room anymore,” she said. “It felt like a violation of my basic wants of not having random people go through your stuff.”
Officers, charges say, spoke with three other residents who said they saw Boyd, or a man who resembled Boyd, in their rooms.
Two days before Boyd’s 2016 arrest, he pleaded guilty to attempted residential burglary and third-degree theft in the 2014 case, which bears strong similarities to the more recent one. In that case, Boyd was arrested early on the morning of Nov. 29, 2014, after three women reported burglaries in two Happy Valley neighborhood apartments, court records say.
Officers found Boyd outside a fourth-floor apartment wearing two bras and no shirt, according to charges.
Boyd, who had no known criminal history at the time, was sentenced to 90 days in jail, according to court records.
Coach knew of 2014 offense
Boyd joined Western’s track-and-field team as a student athlete, and, after graduating in June 2014, stayed on as a volunteer coach, Cocke said in a statement. In that capacity, he would have helped head coach Halsell “as needed.” Boyd was issued keys only for equipment bunkers and the track and field office, Cocke added.
We do not believe that Coach Halsell intentionally sought to cover up that arrest and subsequent conviction.
Paul Cocke, WWU spokesman
It’s unclear when Halsell found out about Boyd’s arrest in 2014, but records show it was as early as July 2016, according to dates on character reference letters, that included one from Halsell, submitted in court. Halsell’s letter indicates that he aimed to set Boyd back on the right track after his arrest.
“My hope would be to see that Tanner would be able to be a productive part of our community,” Halsell wrote. “I wish you could know the Tanner Boyd I know from day to day. I do believe that if given the chance, he will continue bringing positive impacts to our community.”
Other letters said Boyd had strong work ethic and coaching abilities; a former cross-country runner Boyd once coached praised him for his dedication to the sport and its athletes.
WWU administrators found out about Boyd’s first offense the day he was arrested in November 2016, Cocke said. He was immediately barred from campus.
“Unfortunately, Coach Halsell did not communicate that to his supervisor, Director of Athletics Steve Card, or to any other senior administrator at Western, until after Boyd’s 2016 arrest on campus.” Cocke said of Boyd’s first arrest. “We do not believe that Coach Halsell intentionally sought to cover up that arrest and subsequent conviction.”
Halsell, Cocke added, was disciplined, but did not give further details. The Bellingham Herald has requested those documents.
Some call WWU’s response inadequate
In the months after the break-in, Gaston said she began keeping her door locked. She rearranged her room to make the space feel different, and has gone through counseling.
Gaston and Xana Waughman, another resident adviser who was at Highland Hall that night in November, said they thought the university downplayed the incident from the start. An alert the university sent just before noon on Nov. 12 said police arrested a man “in connection with thefts of clothing.” The alert, Waughman said, read like someone had simply stolen laundry, rather than a crime that, to many residents, seemed sexual in nature.
I’m all for forgiveness. But when that forgiveness negatively affects my staff members, that’s not something I condone.
Xana Waughman, Highland Hall resident adviser
In discussions with residence life leaders, Gaston said some seemed to blame her for the break-in, pointing to her unlocked door.
“That’s heartbreaking, because had this been said to one of my residents, I would have been livid,” she said. “It’s not my fault a strange man decided to enter my residence and try on my clothes.”
Cocke said any suggestions of victim-blaming were wrong.
“It is never appropriate to blame a victim in any way for a crime,” he said, adding resident advisers were told the same in a recent meeting.
Gaston added that a residence life employee also told advisers not to discuss the incident, and, if asked about it, to only provide the verbatim text of the campus alert. Cocke said that response isn’t correct, and added that the interim employee who gave those directions is no longer at the university. Advisers, he added, should have been instructed to refer questions about the incident to an administrator.
Changes and reviews underway
Western Athletics has since changed its policy to require background checks for all volunteers, Cocke said, but noted that Boyd was already a volunteer when he was convicted of the 2014 offense. Department heads, can request background checks for volunteers, though it isn’t mandated campus-wide. Administrators are reviewing the policies to see how they can be improved, Cocke added.
In emphasizing WWU’s commitment to safety, Cocke pointed to the university’s own police department and programs surrounding mental health, suicide prevention and technology safety. The alert on Nov. 12, like all alerts, is vague because of the “legal issues” with criminal activity on campus, he added.
“Any time an incident occurs, such as at Highland Hall, our immediate response is reactive to the situation but in being reactive we strive to be proactive in making the campus community aware of situations regarding safety and health,” Cocke said.
Waughman said she understood that Boyd was trying to get help following his conviction in the 2014 case, but it didn’t excuse what he did in November.
“I’m all for forgiveness,” she said. “But when that forgiveness negatively affects my staff members, that’s not something I condone.”