Report finds no racial bias in WSU student conduct process

However, a 'perception' of unfairness against football players persists

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An independent report has found no evidence of racial bias or discrimination within Washington State University's student conduct process, which has been the subject of scrutiny since the discipline of former WSU football player Robert Barber and others last fall.

Barber was involved in a brawl at a party in July 2016, and was seen on video punching a WSU student who was left unconscious. Barber and another football player, T.J. Fehoko, were expelled by Washington State University's Student Conduct Board in the fall, but Barber's expulsion was reduced to a suspension upon appeal, and by the end of the season he was playing in football games again. Last week — seven months after the brawl — Whitman County Prosecutors charged him with felony assault.

Asian-Pacific Islander advocacy groups alleged racial bias in the initial discipline of Barber and called on WSU to review its conduct process. An online petition gained thousands of signatures and called for "justice" for Barber, claiming he was "racially profiled and targeted" by the University.

WSU President Kirk Schulz commissioned a review of potential racial bias in the fall, conducted by Coeur d'Alene law firm Lyons O'Dowd. That report was released by the university today, and it found "no evidence of illegal discrimination or bias within the student conduct process regarding any ethnic or racial group."

The report did note, however, that witnesses had a "perception" of unfairness involving the treatment of football players based on the process and the manner in which hearings were conducted.

One former board member, according to the report, recalled a Board Chair saying something to the effect of, "Another student from [athletic team]," or, "oh yeah, another student from [particular Greek] house" during deliberations.

But the report says, "it is the opinion of 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."

Other witnesses said cases involving football players were no different than other cases, and they were concerned that the athletic department should to a better job stressing what is and is not acceptable behavior. They reportedly cited Mike Leach's three team rules: Don't cheat (or steal), don't do drugs, don't hit women.

The investigators analyzed statistics for potential findings of disparate impact on racial groups, but again found insufficient evidence. From spring 2014 until November 2015, there were 201 total cases and 62 expulsions. Of those expulsions, 41 percent involved white respondents, and 4 percent involved Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. The university's population is 61 percent white and 0.4 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, which would appear to suggest a disproportionality. But investigators say that data sampling is "far too small to support a claim of disparate impact."

Still, the report suggest several ways that WSU should change its student conduct process, and WSU's new Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Jo Gonzales says the university will review all those recommendations, which include the following:
  • Make all sanctioning decisions involving suspension and expulsion a unanimous vote
  • Provide an independent attorney during all adjudicative hearings and deliberations
  • Provide an advisor to students to help with procedural aspects of proceedings
  • Increase membership of the conduct board from five members to seven
  • Select the composition of the conduct board randomly, like jury selection
Gonzales says the university's Student Conduct Process Task Force will use the report as part of a comprehensive review. The university has already put changes in place as the result of a Dec. 1 Washington Court of Appeals ruling saying that WSU and other colleges in the state must use a full adjudication process in cases when a student facing expulsion is accused of sexual assault.

Gonzales says all students at WSU need to be held to the same level of rights and responsibilities, no matter if they're a student athlete or member of the Greek community. She says the task force will examine all ways to improve the process, using community feedback.

"This really is going to be a community process for us," she says.

Here's the full report: