WSU faces questions about student safety



Posted on May 10, 2014 at 8:29 AM

Updated Saturday, May 10 at 12:08 PM

Monday was Cinco de Mayo, and at The Coug near the WSU campus, students let off some finals week steam.

A lot of memorable college nights begin like this, but parents know how they can sometimes end. It's why they worry.

"They just tell me to make good choices,” said Brooklyn Miller.

“’Are you with a group of people?’ when I go out, and like 'How are you getting back?'" said Courtney Altig.

The concerns are legitimate. Disturbing stats from the U.S. Justice Department show that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.

At WSU those numbers are all the more frightening when you consider the school is now accused of mishandling those cases involving their students.

MORE: WSU, UI facing US federal sex assault investigation

"I've just heard of a lot of situations going unreported, honestly... because a lot of people don't want to deal with that,” said Kaitlin Forest.

This investigation isn't about the number of sex crimes. In fact, between 2010-12, the University of Washington had nearly a third more than WSU. This really has to do with how the university handled complaints from students who said they were victims.

Patrick Groves is a student journalist at WSU.

"If it shows up in a police report they start their investigation," he said.

For the past couple months he's been looking into sexual violence at the university, which can be anything from harassment to forcible rape.

"Since I've been covering this... I've had nightmares. This is some really scary stuff,” said Groves.

Groves had already started digging before the federal investigation was announced recently.

RELATED: UI Dean of Students responds to federal investigation
He discovered that in January of last year, the Department of Education started looking into claims against WSU about sexual violence involving students.

"Allegedly they were discouraged from reporting them, or the investigations were delayed, or the investigations weren't held at all,” he said.

"That sounds like what students have mentioned to us in the past,” said Emilie McLarnan

McLarnan is with Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, a support organization for victims of sexual violence.

"The length of time of the investigation, can feel too long for students,” said McLarnan.

WSU officials face tough questions.

"I think they should probably do a better job because it's serious, sexual assault is pretty bad,” said Madison Dutro.

But a lot of students we talked to said the allegations are surprising.

Duke Dolphin had a friend who was accused of sex assault and the punishment was swift and severe - the student was expelled.

In the past couple of years the school has also started a violence prevention program and something called “Green Dot, et cetera” a kind of sexual violence awareness training.

Last year more than 4,000 incoming students went through a Green Dot session.

"They feel more confident in recognizing what sexual assault looks like on our campus... and in taking action in doing something to make it less likely it occurs," said Nikki Finnestead

Groves says students are part of the equation. But more important, he says, is the university having their backs if they become victims of sexual violence.

"Wazzu's bringing in more students every year... that should definitely be on the minds of parents who are sending their female students here,” he said.

A spokesperson declined to talk to us on-camera for this story. Instead, we received a statement, which says in part:

WSU takes its Title IX obligations seriously and does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct. Complaints are investigated promptly and appropriate steps are taken to stop discriminatory behavior, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects.

While we believe our complaint procedures, policies and practices fully comply with the law, we look forward to working with OCR to make any needed improvements to ensure that these matters are handled in accordance with OCR recommendations and best practices and in a manner that best protects our students.

Read the complete statement