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Sexual assault persists on local college campuses even as schools take steps to fight it

Following recent allegations of drugging and sexual assault at Washington State University fraternity houses, Bekkah Leggett spoke out on Facebook about the problems of rape culture and victim-blaming. Many of her peers responded with words of support, but a few commenters were argumentative or dismissive. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Following recent allegations of drugging and sexual assault at Washington State University fraternity houses, Bekkah Leggett spoke out on Facebook about the problems of rape culture and victim-blaming. Many of her peers responded with words of support, but a few commenters were argumentative or dismissive. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Bekkah Leggett winces when she thinks about the three young women who were allegedly drugged at a Washington State University fraternity house in early September.

Leggett said she and her roommate visited Pullman Regional Hospital that night for an unrelated matter, and listened as nurses carted young women into the emergency room.

“In the four hours I was there, we heard three unresponsive people being brought in,” she said. “They were just like, ‘Rush her in! She’s unresponsive, not responding to light.’”

Meanwhile, allegations were surfacing. Three women told Pullman police they felt as though they had been drugged at the Delta Upsilon house on the evening of Sept. 2 and morning of Sept. 3. One of them, an 18-year-old, said she was given alcohol and then sexually assaulted.

The fraternity chapter remains suspended, although no one has been charged in connection with the allegations.

As a college student and victim of rape herself, Leggett said she was upset – but not surprised – when she read the headlines.

“That was from one night,” she said. “People party every day here.”

It’s been said countless times: Sexual assault is a persistent problem on college campuses, often complicated by drugs and alcohol, social pressures and intimidating reporting processes. Victims face lasting trauma, and many are too scared to name their attackers. Police grapple with conflicting claims and lack of evidence. Colleges face intense scrutiny for their handling of allegations.

Schools in the Inland Northwest say they’re doing everything they can to prevent sexual misconduct, promote healthy relationships, help victims recover and properly discipline the accused. But Leggett and other advocates say it’s an uphill battle to reverse misguided ideas about gender roles and consent.

“Here’s a pretty good example of rape culture,” Leggett said in an interview at her College Hill apartment. “When I had my high school graduation party, I got three things of pepper spray that go on a keychain. All my male friends got condoms and booze.”

She paused. “That pretty much sums up what college is like for women.”

‘It shouldn’t be expected’

The morning after her hospital visit, Leggett took to Facebook. She posted on a group page that WSU students use to plan parties and bar runs.

Her message encouraged women to be cautious and scolded those who have slipped pills into other students’ drinks.

“THIS NEEDS TO STOP,” she wrote. “It’s only the second week of school and there’s already ER rooms flooding because of this. Please help keep each other safe.”

Hundreds of students saw the post, and many responded with words of support. But a few commenters were argumentative or dismissive.

One student, a Delta Upsilon member, suggested young women should know their limits when drinking. His comments were quickly deleted amid criticism from other students.

The response showed that some students need a better understanding of the cultural factors that play into sexual assault, Leggett said.

“A guy can be passed out in the lawn, and nothing is going to happen to him,” she said. “He’s going to wake up in the morning and have some drawings on his face. That’s not going to be the case for a woman.”

She added that synthetic drugs are increasingly common at parties, and many students take them voluntarily without fully understanding their effects.

“People on campus here call them the Hulks,” she said. “Apparently they’re supposed to be way better than just a regular Xanax.”

Research suggests that more than half of college sexual assaults happen during the stretch from August to November, and that students are most at risk during their first few months on campus. That time frame is commonly referred to as the “red zone.”

Leggett, who is 23, said personal responsibility is important, but victims are too often blamed for being naive or making themselves vulnerable.

“Oh, you were really drunk. You were at a party. You live in Pullman. That’s expected,” she said, rattling off familiar excuses. “It shouldn’t be expected.”

Study: 23 percent of undergraduate women have been raped, assaulted

During the last weekend of October, two students said they were sexually assaulted at house parties near Eastern Washington University. The school learned of the incidents and notified the campus police department.

But the women have not named suspects or pursued an investigation, said Gary Gasseling, EWU’s deputy police chief.

Students are often reluctant to report sexual assaults because they’re in the same classes, dorms or social circles as their attackers, Gasseling said. And by the time they do come forward, it’s often too late to prove what happened.

“We know that nationwide this is a chronically underreported crime,” said Amy Johnson, EWU’s associate vice president for student life. “Sexual assault and rape is a societal problem. It’s not just on college campuses.”

In 2015, researchers from the American Association of Universities surveyed students at 27 campuses across the country. They found that 23.1 percent of undergraduate women and 5.4 percent of undergraduate men had been raped or sexually assaulted. Among graduate students, the rates were significantly lower, 8.8 percent for women and 2.2 percent for men.

The study also found that few victims – 5 to 28 percent – had previously reported their assaults; the reporting rates differed by campus and the severity of the crime. Many victims believed their incident was not serious enough to report. Others were too embarrassed or ashamed, or thought it would be too emotionally difficult. Some “did not think anything would be done about it,” the study found.

But Johnson said she’s encouraged by a recent survey that evaluated how safe students feel on the EWU campus.

“There are some data that indicate that we’re making good strides in communicating the issue, and making sure that students feel comfortable reporting it,” she said.

Gasseling said his department works to reduce sexual violence by targeting underage drinking. Similarly, in 2014, WSU banned alcohol in all fraternities and sororities that house freshmen, citing an “unprecedented number of Greek chapters that have lost recognition in recent years.”

And earlier this month, WSU student leaders took the unprecedented step of banning all social events at Greek houses until the end of the semester. In announcing their decision, the leaders of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils cited rising concern over the number of “assaults, rapes, falls and hospitalizations due to the overuse of alcohol and/or drugs by Greek members in the community.”

Many schools offer “bystander intervention” training, which teaches students how to spot warning signs for sexual violence. Schools also require new students to take crash courses on sexual misconduct, drug and alcohol abuse, and personal and relationship health. Courses can be online or in a classroom setting, or both.

One program at Gonzaga University, called Think About It, “sets the tone for the kind of environment we want to have,” said Stephanie Whaley, the school’s Title IX compliance officer.

Title IX is a federal law that requires colleges to investigate matters of student conduct. Whaley said safeguards are in place to protect victims and encourage them to participate in that process.

In extreme cases with abundant evidence, conduct boards can impose an “interim suspension” during an investigation, Whaley said. They also can order a suspect not to contact a victim.

Meanwhile, a pattern of reckless and malicious behavior continues. In the past two weeks, another two women reported they were sexually assaulted at off-campus parties in Cheney. And at Whitman College in Walla Walla, at least eight students – including men and women – have reported symptoms suggesting they were drugged at parties over two weekends.

Walla Walla police are investigating. Officer Tim Bennett, a department spokesman, said none of the students have reported being sexually assaulted. But that’s unusual, he said. “Normally this kind of activity results in sexual assaults, but we have no indication of that in this case.”

In March, a Whitman College fraternity was forced to stop hosting social events after an unspecified number of sexual misconduct allegations against its members.

Whaley, from Gonzaga, said schools need to be more proactive.

“I think we need more prevention training initiatives, and I think we need those earlier. The earlier, the better.”

Schools can control how they respond

A woman says she was gang-raped at a house party near North Idaho College in November 2013, when she was a freshman there.

Now she’s suing NIC in federal court, claiming school officials did nothing to help her after she reported the assault. Instead, she claims, the school disciplined her when she began drinking and acting out, and tried to persuade her to move out of the dorms.

“It’s not the school’s fault that assaults happen,” the woman said in an interview. “It’s how they respond to them that matters.”

The woman, who did not want her name published, said that friends and school officials alienated her while she was in physical and emotional pain.

“Nobody asked me if I was OK,” she said. “One of my roommates said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t get so (drunk),’ and one of my guy friends was like, ‘Jeez, dude,’ and that was it. That was all he said.”

Frustrated by NIC’s response, the woman dropped out and reported the assault to Coeur d’Alene police in February 2014. Police recommended charges against three men, but the Kootenai County Prosecutor’s Office determined there wasn’t enough evidence for court. The case was closed.

In a report, a detective described the woman’s hazy recollections of the party. At one point, the report says, she “blacked out again, and when she came to, she was alone in the basement on the floor.” At another point, she reported feeling “too drunk to say no.”

In the interview, the woman said she waited to alert police because she didn’t want to draw attention – especially from her parents.

“It was my first semester in college, and I didn’t want them to think I was being so irresponsible,” she said. “I was very nervous that they would freak out.”

NIC spokesman Tom Greene said the college doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But in a statement, the college said that “every Title IX incident is fully investigated and adjudicated.”

The college said it offers bystander intervention training and works closely with the Safe Passage Violence Prevention Center in Coeur d’Alene. This semester, the college said, it’s “implementing an in-depth, online, mandatory sexual assault prevention training for all students.”

The woman now lives in Boise and said she gets anxious whenever she’s near a college campus. Wednesday marked three years since her assault. She still drinks and cuts herself. And most recently she developed an eating disorder.

“I feel like I’m only supposed to get better. Even back at school, there was this theme that I’m supposed to improve. Everyone was telling me to stop drinking and get better grades,” she said. “But I understand it’s not that easy.”

‘I’m paying the price for someone else’s crime’

Leggett was 19 and had just finished her freshman year at WSU. She and a friend were home in Spokane for the summer, browsing for new friends on a dating app.

They met a charming guy, about their age, and he invited them to a party in a motel room, Leggett said. She and her friend woke up there the next day, surrounded by six men they barely knew.

“I took one shot, and I felt really sick, and that was it,” she said. “I had had sex one time before I was gang-raped.”

Leggett’s account could not be independently verified. She never told police about the assault, and she didn’t tell her parents until a year later, when the resulting trauma forced her to take a break from classes.

And in the immediate aftermath of the assault, she couldn’t bear the thought of providing physical evidence.

“There are rules for rape kits,” she said. “You’re expected, as a victim, to go from being raped straight to the hospital.”

For many victims, it’s easier “just to repress it, and act like it didn’t happen, and try to get better on your own,” she said.

At least one of the women from WSU’s Delta Upsilon party provided a urine sample, but the state forensic lab found no trace of a date-rape drug. Pullman police interviewed a potential suspect but couldn’t gather enough evidence to charge him, Cmdr. Chris Tennant said last month.

“The whole attractiveness of a date-rape drug is that they are extremely difficult to detect,” Tennant said. “They dissipate from the body really quick.”

He added, “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It means there is insufficient evidence to support the allegations.”

Delta Upsilon’s national headquarters is still conducting its own investigation of the WSU chapter, and disciplinary measures are possible, said spokeswoman Ashley Martin.

The suspension came just five months after another WSU fraternity was disbanded for similar problems. In April, officials said two students may have been drugged at a party at Phi Delta Theta, and a third was hospitalized after being pressured to participate in a drinking competition. Other Greek houses have been closed over allegations of sexual violence.

“It’s very triggering,” Leggett said, “coming back to school and seeing how often it occurs.”

Leggett studies psychology and would have been a senior this year, but she’s taking another break from school to improve her own mental health. She’s had severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder since the assault, and has survived several suicide attempts.

“I wake up screaming sometimes,” she said. “I’m on four different medications, three times a day … and that’s still not enough to keep me sleeping. I feel like I’m paying the price for someone else’s crime.”


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