Washington State University Under Fire for Treatment of Students Accused of Assault

The disciplinary actions taken against Washington State University football player Robert Barber by the university have some critics wondering whether students accused of assault are receiving fair and adequate process of their cases.

Fifth-year senior Robert Barber, a defensive tackle for WSU’s football team, was expelled (one class short of graduation) by the university after allegedly assaulting another student at a party over the summer. Barber appealed his expulsion, which was reduced to suspension.

The suspension, however, still leaves Barber’s professional football and educational prospects uncertain. Critics of WSU’s student discipline process say that Barber’s case illustrates that the system, like those of many colleges around the country, is unfair.

These critics include two Washington State Asian Pacific-Islander advocacy groups, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition’s King County Chapter and the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. The groups claim WSU’s student conduct board denied Barber due process by failing to grant Barber a full adjudicatory hearing. While Barber’s case has received a great deal of attention due to his status as a student athlete, the advocacy groups insist that his case calls attention to the right of all students to a fair process.

The Barber case has also illustrated some key differences between the way WSU reviews student conduct and the way the University of Washington does. In reviewing the policies and processes of both schools, an independent expert found that WSU’s system gave students less protection than the University of Washington’s system provided. However, the same expert concluded that WSU’s system affords students with due process rights similar to many other colleges in the nation.

At WSU, a conduct board including staff, faculty, and student members reviews cases of students facing expulsion for their actions. This review is conducted via a brief administrative hearing which does not follow typical court procedures or rules of evidence. The board bases its decision whether or not to expel using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, essentially, whether it is more likely than not that the accused student committed the infraction.

Accused WSU students generally have a week to prepare for these hearings and are required to represent themselves, though they may have an advisor present. That advisor (either an attorney or a non-attorney) is not permitted to present the student’s case for the student. The accused student is also unable to directly question witnesses, but instead must suggest questions in writing to the conduct board chair, who ultimately decides what questions to ask witnesses.

Contrast this situation with the one at the University of Washington. At UW, a student facing suspension or expulsion is entitled to request a hearing before the UW Faculty Appeals Board. This hearing is formal and follows procedures similar to those of superior court. While UW’s hearings (like WSU’s) use a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard to decide cases, accused students at UW are entitled to attorney representation. This attorney can cross-examine witnesses and argue the accused student’s case.

In an interesting footnote to the Barber case, the Washington State Court of Appeals recently decided a case brought by an expelled WSU graduate student against the university. The appeals court found that the university’s failure to afford the student a full adjudicative proceeding over sexual assault charges meant the student did not receive adequate process.