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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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Other Papers Say: Unify response to misconduct


No excuse can be tolerated for Washington’s disjointed, inadequate response to sexual misconduct on college campuses. Having six public university systems with six different methods of dealing with reports of sexual assault and harassment fails to support or protect victims, while people who commit offenses dodge flailing bureaucracy.

These systems should be strengthened and run uniformly, rather than the hodgepodge approach. Over the past five years, Washington’s public universities dealt with at least 492 reports of sexual misconduct by students, each of which ought to go into a clear and cohesive system focused on protecting victims. Without a centralized policy, the experiences on each campus aren’t being used to improve the ordeals on others.

As detailed in a March 6 report by The Times’ Asia Fields, urgent reform is badly needed. Too often, a student reporting sexual abuse wades into opaque bureaucracy, with the college’s investigation paralleling a criminal-justice response.

State universities must do better at recognizing the burden this places on each student, staffer or faculty member who reports being victimized, and improve the guardrails to protect victims’ access to education and life goals.

This begins with developing a careful and consistent approach focused on survivors’ needs for protection and recovery, as well as accountability. Often in the current setup, the victims face systemic obstacles while the offenders ignore toothless responses. One example of how the system now fails: At Western Washington University, administrator-issued no-contact orders between victim and offender aren’t shared with the campus police.

More must be done to put victims’ lives front and center. Federal policy changes expected this spring to improve Title IX protections, and add new ones for transgender students, are a start. Now Washington’s public universities need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

Each campus has a different system where misconduct is variously dealt with by panels of faculty, students or administrators, depending on the place. At Washington State University, administrative law judges decide cases. This inconsistency is absurd, six long years after a 2016 Legislature investigation analyzed the absence of good statewide policy, finding some schools with “mini-courtrooms with prehearing motions and discovery orders.”

That’s what real court is for. Campus processes need clear standards for expulsion, suspensions, enforcement of no-contact orders, counseling and survivor support. A student who is sexually victimized and watches campus administrators bungle the situation can fall off-track in their diploma pursuit, while the offender suffers little.

They’ve lived through the systems and know the fault lines. Fix those with a coherent structure, or campus response will continue to fail victims who need it most.