This past October, amid a fervor of displeasure with the Washington State University Student Conduct Board’s handling of former football player Robert Barber’s case, President Kirk Schulz announced they’d be hiring an outside law firm to look into the SCB. In a report given to the school last month and released publicly earlier this week, Lyons O’Dowd says they found no evidence of racial or ethnic bias in the hearing of conduct cases.
However, Lyons O’Dowd did find that, in interviews with people involved with the board and those outside it, that there was a perception of bias not only towards Washington State football players but towards members of the school’s Greek community. The law firm noted in their report to the school that while some of those perceptions come from the brief nature of the hearings, there are other issues relating to the way the hearings are conducted, including:
- “comments were reportedly made that suggested a finding of responsibility prior to deliberation or receipt of all the evidence.”
- “reports that a Board Chair made negative statements about the football team and its apparent tolerance for violence against other males.”
- “a comment made during a hearing suggesting a respondent had previously been involved in violent misconduct (which would be prohibited information until a finding of responsibility had been made.”
Lyons O’Dowd calls the statements “troubling” in the report but notes they don’t believe it’s evidence of racial or ethnic bias.
There’s a ton to dig into in the report, 20 pages worth in fact. It includes some of Lyons O’Dowd’s critiques of the process, including their concurrence with some witnesses that hearings were overly punitive and the way members are selected to hear cases wasn’t fair. Lyons O’Dowd did make recommendations to the university based off their three month long investigation and here are some of the highlights.
Make an independent attorney available during all adjudicative hearings and deliberations: This is the biggest no-brainer of the lot. Previously, students had been allowed to bring an attorney to the hearings ... but they couldn’t consult with them. So having an attorney there to look after both the conduct board and the person seated in front of them is a practical and good idea.
Develop written guidelines that identify the types of misconduct that are likely to result in a suspension or expulsion decision: Not only does it help guide the conduct board in doling out punishments, it helps students understand exactly what punishments they may be facing when going before the board. Instead of it being a relative crapshoot, everyone would understand the possible outcomes before any decision can be made.
Require that all sanctioning decisions for suspension or expulsion be unanimous after a finding of responsibility has been reached: Given the severity of the punishments involved, this, again, falls in the no-brainer category. The effect on a student’s academic life if they are expelled or even just suspended can be substantial so everyone really needs to agree that the penalty they are handing out is fair and just.
It will be up to the school’s Student Conduct Review Task Force to decide what, if any, of these recommendations are adopted but given the light that got shined on not only Barber’s case last fall, I think they’ll do well to take a long, hard look at all of them.
We’ve embedded the full report below.