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Sexual assault cases at WSU highlight gaps in how colleges respond to misconduct

‘Nothing should have happened to any of us’

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Content advisory: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault. Resources for survivors are available here.

PULLMAN — By the time Washington State University allowed a student to transfer to its flagship campus, it had evidence he was a risk.

Four women at the university’s commuter campus in Vancouver had told staff the man sexually harassed them or made unwanted sexual contact.

The university’s investigation of one of those cases was still underway when it approved Thomas Luke Culhane’s transfer to its Pullman campus in 2017, his senior year. The woman whose report started the investigation, whose initials are Q.R., told administrators she was concerned for students in Pullman, where there were dorms and more drinking.

WSU suspended Culhane for about a week after finding him responsible for sexual misconduct. His summer suspension ended after he wrote a short essay on what he learned about consent.

Ten days later, Culhane sexually assaulted a freshman student.

“Nothing should have happened to her,” Q.R. said. “Nothing should have happened to any of us. People knew.”

The Seattle Times does not generally name sexual assault survivors without their consent. The women in this story requested that none or part of their names be used.

Culhane, now 26, of Camas, declined through an attorney to speak to a reporter. University, police and court records document the allegations against him.

The frustrations of the women who reported Culhane echo years of criticism from students and advocates that colleges across the nation don’t do enough to support survivors, protect students and hold perpetrators accountable.

These concerns have persisted throughout shifts to Title IX, the civil rights law enacted 50 years ago that now requires schools to respond to sexual misconduct, as different presidential administrations have prioritized supporting survivors or giving accused students more rights. Under the law, colleges handle reports of sexual violence separate from the legal system in a process designed to be more educational.

The women reported their cases to WSU officials at a time when Title IX was seen as generally supportive of survivors. In Washington state, though, experts were concerned that some colleges’ systems resembled “mini-courtrooms” — years before the Trump administration pushed schools across the country in that direction, which the Biden administration is expected to undo after a lengthy rule-making process.

Washington’s six public universities investigated at least 492 reports of sexual misconduct by students in the past five years, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data that had not previously been compiled publicly. In about half of these reports, the accused student was found responsible for misconduct. The schools also received hundreds of reports not investigated at the reporting students’ request or because the report was deemed outside of the schools’ policies. Together, the colleges averaged around 140,000 students in this time.

The data is imperfect, as some of the universities say their data systems are a work in progress. And surveys at colleges in Washington and other states have found many survivors do not report.

At the University of Washington, the state’s largest university, 7,500 students and 5,300 staff responded to a 2020 survey. About 15% said they experienced unwanted sexual contact or harassment at UW, including 1% of respondents who said someone raped them. That group had the highest reporting rate, along with those who had experienced relationship violence, with one in 11 rape survivors saying they made an official report. Most said they didn’t feel their report was handled well.

“Having been through the systems, I see that there are a lot of holes,” said the WSU student Culhane assaulted in Pullman. “Knowing and understanding how alone and isolated you feel, it seems like more people need to know what goes on behind closed doors.”

WSU has argued in response to later civil lawsuits that “every complaint lodged was met with prompt action by the University that was appropriate to the circumstances at the time.”

In a statement to The Seattle Times, WSU said it could not comment on matters involving students but regularly assesses its policies to address concerns.

The car trip

Q.R. arrived at WSU Vancouver from out of state, excited to live independently for the first time and get involved in the campus community.

At the start of her sophomore year in 2016, she was on the way back from a university surfing trip when Culhane switched cars and sat next to her. There wasn’t much space in the back row, so she didn’t think it was strange when Culhane’s leg moved against hers.

Then Culhane put his hand on her leg, she later told the university and police. She pushed his hand away, used her sweatshirt as a barrier and asked for space.

She felt trapped. Only 19, she was in a car with older students she didn’t know very well, most of whom were men. And Culhane wasn’t stopping.

Culhane moved his hand between her legs, she later reported. Q.R. told him to stop. She said he briefly paused, but then continued. Eventually, he sent her a text that said “Is this alright?” Q.R. looked at the message but did not respond. She felt frozen.

The other student in the back seat later told investigators he heard Q.R. say Culhane was making her uncomfortable, which he thought was because Culhane could be hyper. Culhane was known for being loud, with one student calling him the “unofficial school mascot.”

Culhane later told the university that he felt a connection with Q.R. and rubbed her thighs “in a romantic way,” according to an investigative report. When she pushed his hand away, he said, he “didn’t know if she was saying not in this area or not at all.” Asked if he put his hand between her legs, he said, “a little bit kind of toward that.” He said he stopped when Q.R. told him no.

Q.R. said he didn’t stop — not until they neared campus after a two-hour drive.

She raced home from campus and double checked that her door was locked. Culhane called her multiple times, which he followed with texts, according to investigation records.

“Sorry about that! :/”

“Are you upset?”

A pattern of complaints

By the time Culhane went on that surfing trip, WSU had already received a report about him.

A student said Culhane harassed her through social media in September 2016. She also later told police that he sent an unsolicited photo of his genitals.

She made a report to the university, which followed her request to intervene without launching an investigation, which it could do under federal guidance as long as it considered whether there was a safety risk to campus.

Confronted by an administrator, Culhane cried and admitted to the harassing messages, according to her notes. She told him further violations would result in a sanction.

“Obviously he did not get it, because his other inappropriate actions took place just a few days later,” the administrator later wrote to the university’s assistant dean of students.

The trip Q.R. went on was four day later. She reported Culhane to police and WSU about a month after, and decided to move forward with a WSU investigation after a few more months.

Within a week of Q.R.’s report, an 18-year-old freshman said Culhane groped her thigh in a car on a university-sponsored trip, she later told police. Around the same time, another student said Culhane followed her, leading her to ask campus security for escorts. Both students said lower-level administrators were aware of their concerns but did not discuss filing an official report. There is no record in Culhane’s file that WSU later submitted into court record that the employees alerted the university, despite being required to by WSU policy.

At the time, federal guidelines said information indicating a pattern of sexual misconduct should trigger a wider investigation to look for other misconduct.

But WSU investigated only Q.R.’s complaint. During the investigation, a student told the investigator that Culhane grabbed and tried to kiss her at a bar on a university trip, according to the report.

A month after the investigation started, Culhane applied to transfer to Pullman.

WSU’s office that approves transfers between its campuses doesn’t check to ensure the student is in good disciplinary standing, the university’s registrar later said in court.

Students today can still transfer between WSU campuses during an investigation, WSU said. The other public universities in the state also said they would not prevent a transfer within their systems during an investigation, but that discipline would apply to all campuses.

When Q.R. heard of Culhane’s transfer, she was worried. What happened to her occurred on a commuter campus. Now he’d be going to the main campus known for parties. She warned administrators that she was concerned for students in Pullman, according to WSU records.

“I knew they weren’t going to listen and it was going to happen again,” Q.R. now recalls. “I’m so angry I was right. I did everything by the book — but nothing helped.”

An educational process

Colleges’ misconduct systems vary widely. Some schools in the state use panels of faculty — and sometimes students — to make decisions in cases, while others leave this task to university administrators, employees with a legal background or even state administrative law judges.

There isn’t enough collaboration between schools to learn from each other or develop best practices, said Daniel Records-Galbraith, the Title IX coordinator at Western Washington University.

“It doesn’t seem right that a student going to one school in Washington is having a different experience than a student at another institution,” he said.

The process also changes depending on how severe the university finds the misconduct, as cases deemed more serious will go through a more extensive process.

In Culhane’s case, WSU found him responsible for sexual misconduct against Q.R. on Aug. 1, 2017, under the “preponderance of evidence” standard that all the public universities in the state use. WSU used a brief process in which the assistant dean of students determined sanctions.

The assistant dean suspended Culhane for nine summer days and required him to complete an alcohol assessment and write papers on what he’d learned about consent and the meaning of probation. Culhane would be on probation when he returned, meaning another violation would result in harsher sanctions. The dean declined to comment when reached by The Times.

Q.R. thought the discipline for Culhane was a slap on the wrist.

Colleges’ student conduct systems are designed to be educational, but under Title IX, they must also protect other students’ safety and access to education. Sanctions can range from a written reprimand to mandating counseling, which is rare, to expulsion.

The president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, Brett Sokolow, said educational sanctions should be used for “very, very minor misconduct” or with punitive sanctions.

“Reflection papers are generally useless,” Sokolow said. “They are not considered an appropriate means to remedy sex discrimination. If a school wants students to understand consent, an institution needs to provide comprehensive consent education.”

WSU’s data shows it has used written assignments in seven cases in the past five years. Educational sanctions in general — including prevention education, goal setting and written assignments — were used in about three-fourths of its cases that ended in a sanction other than expulsion. These were common across the state, used in nearly half of cases not resulting in expulsions or suspension.

Expulsion is the most extreme sanction and was used in 52 cases, or 20% of those in which the state’s universities found a student responsible for sexual misconduct in the past five years, according to the data compiled by The Times. Two universities didn’t expel any students during this time. Suspensions were imposed in 27% of the cases.

While the data has not been easily accessible, students have long expressed — at on — campus protests and events and in articles and op-eds — that colleges’ sanctions are insufficient.

In Culhane’s case, the university later recognized its sanctions didn’t work. In a deposition in a later civil lawsuit, WSU President Kirk Schulz said it was true that WSU found Culhane’s behavior was undeterred by the short suspension, education and probation.

Culhane submitted one of his required essays just weeks before school started at Pullman. The assistant dean sent it back, saying his understanding of consent was “still a bit off” and that someone can’t consent if they lack the mental capacity or are coerced.

He resubmitted it the next day, and it was marked complete. “I now have a complete and accurate understanding and [sic] consent and know how to properly handle future sexual encounters to ensure that no one gets hurt,” it read.

Culhane was emailing back and forth with the assistant dean about his other assigned paper the Saturday before classes started, the same day he hosted a party at his Pullman apartment.

In Pullman

One of the guests at Culhane’s party was an 18-year-old woman who had just arrived in Pullman for orientation in August 2017. She didn’t really know Culhane. She said the first time they met he rubbed her leg, causing her to move away.

She went to his party with a friend she had known since childhood, who was friends with Culhane. She wasn’t planning to stay for long. But after having shots, she felt them enough to decide to crash there with her friend.

She drank more — between nine and 12 drinks total — after eating just one slice of pizza. Culhane and others at the party said he drank only a little.

Her friend passed out and was taken to Culhane’s room. Guests left just after midnight. She went to the bathroom to try to throw up, then to the couch, where she said she hoped to fall asleep.

University and police investigations found her account of what happened next credible.

She said Culhane forcibly penetrated her with his fingers, causing her to bleed. She tried to push him away but felt weak and unable to speak. Culhane masturbated and ejaculated on her.

Culhane then took her to the shower. They got out, and he sexually assaulted her again. When she cried out in pain, she said Culhane put his hands over her mouth and throat to silence her.

He eventually left the room, and the woman fell asleep. She woke up around 4 a.m. and called a friend, explaining what happened and that she tried to get away, then drifted back to sleep.

When she woke up later that morning, she asked a friend to get her. She texted her roommate.

“I got sexually assaulted last night,” her text read. “But I haven’t been able to stand long enough to get myself home so I’ve been stuck here.”

Later that day, Culhane emailed the assistant dean of students more about one of the essays he had to complete to show he had learned from the case involving Q.R.

The day after, on the first day of school, the woman went to the counseling center, then to the hospital for a sexual assault exam, which noted abrasions and bruises. On the second day, she told her mom, who contacted police. She submitted a report to the university the next day.

For the rest of her years on campus, she said, “it seemed like every other week I was meeting with a police officer or someone from the school or an ATVP (Alternatives To Violence Of The Palouse) advocate or lawyers.”

Years of hearings

Under their student conduct codes, colleges handle cases ranging from alcohol violations to sexual misconduct and violence. In cases involving allegations that could be criminal, they typically defer to the student on whether to involve police. The Pullman student reported to both.

The university quickly suspended Culhane in September 2017 and revoked his access to campus while it investigated, as it said there was a potential pattern of misconduct.

Culhane declined to provide an interview to the university, but Pullman police spoke to him that month. According to a transcript of the conversation, Culhane said he believed the woman was “flirting” with him, like when she said she wanted to stay over. He claimed that what happened was consensual but also said her intoxication level was at about a 7 or 8 out of 10.

As police sent their case to prosecutors, WSU, in their investigation, found Culhane responsible for sexual assault and recommended to an administrative law judge that he be expelled.

A year before the woman reported Culhane, a state task force — formed by lawmakers with the goal of making the state “a national leader in addressing” campus sexual violence — noted that there was a lack of clear guidance under state law for campus sexual misconduct processes. Some schools’ resembled “mini courtrooms,” which the task force said ran counter to the educational goals of the process and risked retraumatizing survivors.

WSU’s process was one of the most courtlike when the Pullman student reported Culhane.

Around the same time as the task force’s report in 2016, a state appellate court determined that WSU should have used a full hearing, with attorney participation and cross-examination, before expelling a 40-year-old doctoral student who was criminally charged with third-degree rape and molestation of a 15-year-old girl.

Washington and California are the only states with such strong due-process protections interpreted by courts in this way, Sokolow said.

In response to the case, colleges in the state changed their processes. WSU began using administrative law judges for cases in which they believed a suspension longer than 10 days or expulsion would be appropriate, and is the only university in the state that still uses the judges.

The “level of formality” of the systems impacted students, said Records-Galbraith, who worked at WSU during this time. He investigated Culhane’s Pullman case but said he could not comment on it.

“I think that has maybe resulted in students not wanting to go through the full process because of the burden and length of time it takes,” he said.

The woman who reported Culhane said the process — both leading up to the judge determining expulsion was appropriate, and after Culhane appealed — felt like a criminal case. The hearing included attorneys and cross-examination. After Culhane requested a review, there were motions and more hearings, affidavits and responses.

Culhane’s appeals to WSU’s president and to the judge were denied, with the process finally ending in September 2018.

A month later, Culhane was charged in Whitman County with two counts of second-degree rape, as well as second-degree assault and supplying liquor to minors. The case had by then stretched into the woman’s last year of school.

While deliberating, the jury asked a question about how the prosecutors separated the two counts of rape. But it was too late for prosecutors to provide more information. The jury in March 2019 found Culhane guilty of one count of rape but not the other. He was also found guilty of the alcohol charge and not guilty of assault.

Culhane’s attorney argued the guilty verdict should be dismissed because of the lack of clear jury instructions, and the prosecutor agreed to a deal. Culhane pleaded guilty to second-degree assault with the intent to commit rape, a felony, and was sentenced to nine months in jail and a year in community custody.

Dan LeBeau, the chief deputy prosecutor who handled the case, said it was a significant error.

“She did everything right. She tried to hold him accountable. We were able to do something but not everything she’d hoped,” he said. “It haunts me to this day.”

The woman’s biggest frustration was that Culhane didn’t have to register as a sex offender.

“I don’t think that anyone has been held accountable to the point that they should have been,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to do nothing and be upset. For me, I was upset and angry enough that I couldn’t stop.”

“After all of this, what did I get?”

Title IX, despite its changes, has clearly stated that schools must ensure students have equal access to education. Unequal access might look like a student missing class or school activities to avoid the person they reported, a decline in their grades and having difficulty focusing.

But none of the students in Culhane’s cases felt they received adequate support from the university, echoing a common complaint about Title IX cases in Washington and nationwide.

The woman from Pullman struggled to get through school while going through the university and court cases. Her GPA plunged as she said she “disassociated through most of college.”

She managed to graduate on time, in two and half years, but felt she had to lead the way in getting accommodations.

“It was fully jumping through hoops and then was a waiting game,” she said. “It just didn’t seem that anyone felt a sense of urgency to help.”

The student who said Culhane sent her a photo of his genitals continued to have a class with him. She enlisted other students to make sure he didn’t sit next to her.

Q.R. dropped out of school a year away from graduating. WSU asked her professors to give her accommodations, such as allowing her to turn in assignments late or to retake the class. But she said many refused, saying it wouldn’t be fair to other students.

She and two other Vancouver students who said they were harassed by Culhane sued WSU in 2019. Q.R. recalls facing a “wall of people” in suits representing the university, who asked questions about her relationship history and didn’t take accountability. In this way, “the aftermath was worse than the incident itself,” she said.

WSU agreed to settle for a total of $145,000, which included attorney’s fees, without admitting to wrongdoing.

“After all of this, what did I get?” Q.R. said. “Outside of a chunk of money … In the grand scheme of things, I was still assaulted. I still didn’t graduate with my degree because of this.”

A survey from advocacy group Know Your IX found that out of about 100 survivors who reported to their schools, 10% dropped out and 29% reported another disruption to their education.

The Pullman student also sued the university in 2020 in federal court.

She said she wants universities to do more to protect their students, such as using proper safety measures and being more transparent. Federal student privacy law allows colleges to release names of students with findings of sexual misconduct, but only half the public universities in the state routinely do this, and only in response to records requests.

WSU argued that it responded appropriately to reports against Culhane, and that colleges do not have a special duty of care for their students, like K-12 schools do. Her attorneys argued that colleges do, and that WSU failed to train employees to report misconduct and put her in danger by allowing Culhane to transfer with inadequate supervision.

A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the case before trial, finding that regardless of whether the university’s sanctions were efficient, its response was not indifferent. The judge called the decision to allow Culhane to transfer “a closer call,” but found it did not rise to the level of malfeasance. The Pullman student has appealed to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

WSU didn’t create a new risk within its system by allowing Culhane, who was “arguably a known risk to the university” to transfer, Judge Benjamin Settle wrote.

“Culhane remained a danger whether he was at the Vancouver campus or the Pullman campus,” Settle wrote.

But for the woman who Culhane assaulted in Pullman, allowing him to transfer caused harm she’s recovering from.

Four and a half years after her first week of college, when she reported sexual assault to WSU, she’s still waiting for a resolution.

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