Review of conduct board released, firm finds no racial bias

Despite finding no discrimination or bias, an Idaho law firm suggested ways the WSU Student Conduct Board could improve fairness after its review of the board’s process, which it released publicly today.

The Lyons O’Dowd law firm released a 20-page report stating it did not find any racial or ethnic bias in the student conduct process. However, the firm did give a list of recommendations, including making an attorney available during adjudicative hearings and providing board members with training on conflicts of interest, bias and multicultural issues.

President Kirk Schulz asked the Couer d’Alene-based law firm to review the board’s process in October, investigating claims of racial and ethnic bias. Schulz commissioned the review, which was supposed to take 60 days and be made public in January, after the conduct board suspended Robert Barber and advocacy groups alleged the board denied the senior football player his due process rights.

The board is now required to conduct full adjudications, as opposed to the brief adjudications it previously used, in cases where students could be suspended for more than ten days, be expelled or have their degree revoked, or where a student organization could lose WSU recognition, under the emergency rules filed by the university in early January.

Though the law firm did not find evidence of bias, it did come across numerous witnesses who viewed the process as unfair toward football players, particularly minority football players, because of the way the conduct board hearings were conducted, according to the report.

According to the report, “some witnesses expressed perceptions of unfairness in the system when the respondent has unique cultural differences, particularly where the student is not a native English speaker.”

Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of Student Affairs, said the report shows some areas with room for improvement. She said one of the biggest concerns moving forward is making sure students understand their rights.

“There is going to be a much more ongoing dialogue on who we are,” Gonzales said, “and what we expect from our Coug family.”

Investigators heard from some individuals that the board’s chair spoke negatively about the WSU football team and its “apparent tolerance for violence against other males,” according to the report.

“It is the opinion of the investigators that while such statements would be troubling and could certainly add to the perception of inequity, there remains no evidence of racial or ethnic bias in the student conduct process,” according to the report.

The firm addressed the statements made in their recommendations by suggesting the university provide training for board members focused on remaining impartial and unbiased. The firm also suggested increasing conduct board membership in order to stop one board member from having too much influence over the other members, according to the report.

Among other things, the firm also suggested creating written guidelines to identify types of misconduct that could result in expulsion or a suspension, according to the report.

WSU spokesman Robert Strenge said Schulz asked the law firm to focus solely on investigating possible racial discrimination and/or bias within the student conduct process. Schulz assigned a 15-person university task force to investigate the process after the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled against some of the Student Conduct Board’s proceedings Dec. 1, stating WSU would not be appealing the court’s decision.

“The task force’s role is broader,” Strenge said, “in that Schulz has asked them to develop a process that reflects best student conduct practices nationally.”

Gonzales said there is a small group within the task force focused on researching the best conduct practices across the country, and they are in the process of reaching out to other institutions for guidance.

The law firm’s report was only intended to advise WSU administrators and be considered by the task force as part of their “broader review,” Strenge said.

The law firm interviewed 19 people involved with the student conduct board’s process, including some former members of the board who now work for other universities, according to the report. The investigators also exchanged written communication with some students who had been through the university’s conduct process before.

Gonzales said the timeline for the review to be completed is tentative.

“We want to build the best student conduct process out there,” Gonzales said, “and that is going to take some time.”

Strenge said the task force is expected to complete its review this semester, but he is not aware of any specific target date.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated.