By Erasmus Baxter and Asia Fields
CW: Sexual assault
In 2015, after Western suspended the student it found had sexually assaulted her, Tia Petrini felt a sense of safety she hadn’t in years.
She had spent months advocating for herself to get to that point, recounting her trauma to sometimes-skeptical listeners after reporting that Peter Jacob Lagow, now 23, sexually assaulted her.
Despite this, every other day of her final year at Western, she had to walk past Lagow, who was readmitted to Western in fall 2016.
“The first time I saw him, it felt like a sucker punch to the stomach. It felt like someone kicked me right in the gut,” she said. “Whenever we had to walk next to each other, I felt had there not been so many witnesses, hundreds of other people around, I would have been in the same danger.”
She started planning her movements around campus, sometimes leaving class early and asking friends to walk her to classes. She also started seeing a counselor, she said.
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Western found Lagow in violation of the conduct code for sexual misconduct, which the university defines as encompassing sexual harassment, gender-based harassment and sexual violence, including sexual assault. The violation described in disciplinary documents matches the university’s definition for sexual assault.
Western also found that Lagow had omitted a 2012 juvenile conviction for sexually-motivated assault from his application to Western, university disciplinary records show.
Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge told Lagow in a letter that he wasn’t sure if Lagow would have been admitted in the first place, had Western known about the earlier conviction. Sledge is one of the administrators who reviews applicants with felony charges.
However, when Sledge suspended Lagow for one school year, he seemed to anticipate his return, telling him in an email that the sanctions are intended to both serve as consequences for his behavior and best support him as he planned to return to Western in the future.
Lagow was readmitted for fall quarter 2016. The Registrar’s Office confirmed he graduated in fall 2017 with a degree from the College of Science and Engineering.
Western’s admission and readmission applications ask if applicants have felony charges, violent or kidnapping offenses or sex offender status. Decisions about applicants who answer yes are made by representatives from Admissions, University Police and the Dean of Students office, Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing, said.
Lagow was not a registered sex offender, but still would have had to disclose the charges that were pending at the time, according to Sledge.
Lagow did not respond to two voicemails left by reporters at his work number, a LinkedIn message or a Facebook message request over the span of a month. A coworker also said they passed along an email asking for comment to him.
When Sledge suspended Lagow for one school year, he seemed to anticipate his return, telling him in an email that the sanctions are intended to both serve as consequences for his behavior and best support him as he planned to return to Western in the future.
Situations like Petrini’s are part of the reason students and advocates for survivors of sexual assault have questioned Western’s practice of readmitting perpetrators once their suspensions end.
Last spring, The Western Front reported that Connor Griesemer, a Western student convicted of sexually assaulting another student, had been readmitted to Western after a year-and-a-half suspension. The revelation ignited outrage on campus.
It is unknown how many students found by Western to have sexually assaulted others have been readmitted.
This is in part because the university has refused to release names of students found to have committed sexual misconduct, citing FERPA, the federal student privacy law, in spite of a provision in the law explicitly allowing them to do so.
Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center’s senior legal counsel, disagrees with this practice.
“It seems like Western’s policy now is they’re just not going to provide [that info] and that flies in the face of the intent of the law,” he said. “The law was intended to provide more transparency to these campus disciplinary systems.”
However, in a March email, Cocke said there were no students previously suspended by Western for rape, sexual assault or sexual misconduct registered for winter or spring 2018.
Western’s process of handling sexual violence cases has evolved over time, following emerging effective practices and changes in federal laws and guidance, Cocke said.
“The student conduct process at Western is designed to be a learning process that holds students accountable for their behavior,” he said.
Western has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education since 2015 for its handling of sexual assault cases.
Following student complaints and an internal investigation, in fall 2016, the Equal Opportunity Office became the sole investigator of sexual violence involving students, around a year and a half after Petrini first reported to the university.
Experts say underreporting of sexual assault is common, making the scope difficult to determine. In 2016, 421 Western students who participated in a university survey reported unwanted sexual experiences, ranging from forced penetration to being taken advantage of while intoxicated.
Of those who reported unwanted sexual experiences, 61 percent said the perpetrators were Western students.
The information in this story comes from university disciplinary records, court records included in those files and police reports acquired through public records requests, as well as interviews with Petrini and others.
The AS Review and The Western Front do not identify survivors of sexual assault without their consent. Petrini volunteered to share her name and story, as she said she’s tired of anonymity.
Read more about this story:
|Western Withholds Names of Students Found to Have Committed Sexual Assault|
|When Campus Found A Student Convicted of Sexual Assault Was Readmitted|
|How We Reported This Story|
On March 20, 2015, Petrini and her mother went to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County and she reported having been in a sexually abusive relationship with Lagow to a university police officer, according to a University Police report.
In six separate incidents beginning in spring 2013, she awoke to find Lagow nonconsensually penetrating her, she told police.
The first time she remembers it happening, she told him to stop, but after a brief period of time, he turned around and did it again without saying anything, she said. She didn’t tell him to stop again because she knew he would have what he called a “panic attack,” she said. When he had one, he would hit himself until she stopped him and then guilt her into intercourse, Petrini recalls.
Petrini also told the police Lagow had penetrated her while she was intoxicated and unable to consent on at least five occasions.
Although he had told her about his prior conviction, for which he was on probation, she felt pressured to stay with him at the time and wanted to believe he had changed, she said.
“I was frozen. At that point I really felt trapped because he had already told me about all these insecurities and [him having] what he liked to call panic attacks,” she recalls.
In a statement to Sledge, Lagow said he was initially charged with two counts of molestation in the second degree in juvenile court. In this letter, he admitted to committing the crimes, which he also told the police at the time, according to police reports.
At the time, Lagow expressed remorse and said he wanted to begin voluntary treatment, according to the initial police report.
In July 2012, Lagow pleaded guilty to assault in the second degree, a felony, and assault in the fourth degree with sexual motivation, according to his statement. Sledge confirmed this with University Police, according to an email he sent Lagow.
Lagow told Sledge prosecutors agreed to reduce the charges in exchange for his good behavior, and since he was already enrolled in sex offender treatment. The reduced charges meant that Lagow did not have to register as a sex offender.
Soon after Lagow told Petrini about his conviction, she said his demeanor changed with her. If she told him she did not want to have sex with him, he would become frustrated and would not stop asking or bargaining until she conceded, she said.
If she confronted him, he would have a “panic attack” and start hyperventilating, talking and moving excitedly, she told police. In her report to the university, she also said he would strike himself in the head.
The frequency and aggressiveness of the intercourse warranted several visits to the doctor, she said. A medical report showed she was experiencing abdominal pain.
“His excuse upon excuse every single time was blaming it on me,” she said. “It really made me feel like it was my fault, which is why I didn’t say anything.”
In her report to the university, Petrini said Lagow told her that he violated her because he was too attracted to her and couldn’t help himself, and the look she gave him was “asking for it.”
She ended the relationship in September 2014. After they broke up, he told her he believed he was entitled to do whatever he wanted with her body when they were in a relationship because he had committed himself only to her, she said.
After talking with friends, she realized the manipulative behavior and sexual assault were not her fault, she said.
“I had known that something was wrong and that I felt awful… but once someone was able to put that last puzzle piece in, I broke and didn’t know what to do,” she said.
She ended up reaching out to Rick Ackerman, Lagow’s counselor and former sex offender treatment provider, saying she didn’t think the treatment was working.
Ackerman said in an email he couldn’t comment due to client confidentiality. However, Petrini said he told her he was concerned Lagow’s panic attacks were an act and an excuse for his behavior.
He also said he was afraid Lagow was still showing abusive behavior outside of sessions and encouraged her to report to the police.
“He, just like myself, does not want to see [Lagow] abuse any more women,” Petrini wrote to Sledge.
In April 2015, about a month after reporting to the police, Petrini filed a complaint about Lagow with Western’s Office of Student Life.
In reviewing the report, Sledge interviewed Lagow, Petrini, Lagow’s former roommate and two people Petrini recommended to corroborate her story. He also reviewed a letter from Lagow’s then-girlfriend and a probable cause document provided by Lagow.
On May 29, 2015 he found Lagow in violation of Western’s conduct code for sexual misconduct and for providing false information.
Sledge imposed a suspension of one school year starting once the quarter ended (15 days after the decision), an administrative no-contact order and a requirement that Lagow complete counseling and sex offender treatment before returning.
Cocke said suspensions begin based on the end of the appeal period, not the date of the decision to impose sanctions. However, this suspension became effective four days after the end of the appeal period, according to documents.
Cocke said it was very rare for sex offender treatment to be required as a condition for readmission. Decisions about sex offender status, which indicates likeliness to re-offend, and completion of treatment are made by the courts, he said.
“I had known that something was wrong and that I felt awful… but once someone was able to put that last puzzle piece in, I broke and didn’t know what to do.”
In a letter to Lagow, Sledge said that his account, in which he claimed he regularly asked for consent, did not match Petrini’s.
Sledge said he based his decision on inconsistencies in Lagow’s account, pointing to two parts in particular.
In one, Lagow said he was confident he did not pressure Petrini for sex in any way. In the other, Lagow said he made a series of mistakes that he said led to her feeling pressured to have sex with him. Sledge said he found Lagow’s account to be less credible due to the inconsistency between the two portions.
He also said it was clear that Lagow had provided false information on his application by not disclosing the charges.
Lagow told Sledge he had already been accepted to Western when he was convicted, so he did not disclose it on his application. However, as Sledge pointed out in a letter to Lagow, the application question also asked about pending felony charges.
“In reviewing [the documentation provided by Lagow], and as someone who reviews admission applications from prospective students who answer ‘yes’ to this question, it is not clear to me that you would have been admitted to Western if this information had been provided at the appropriate time,” Sledge wrote.
Lagow appealed the finding in June 2015. However, at his appeal meeting he said he was not appealing the sanctions, but wanted to request to use a different therapist for his sex offender treatment. He felt that Ackerman had betrayed his trust by sharing information about him with Petrini.
Dean of Students Ted Pratt granted this request, according to a letter he sent Lagow.
Cocke said sanctions vary because the purpose of the student conduct process is to hold students accountable in an educational manner, and because the complainant’s desired outcomes are considered.
However, in a recent interview for this story, Petrini said she felt the school was more concerned that Lagow lied on his application about his past conviction than that she reported he sexually assaulted her.
“He got away with it, being suspended,” she said. “It means, ‘Go sit in timeout and think about your behavior.’”
Cocke said survivors are asked about their desired outcome and have the right to appeal an outcome if they feel the sanctions are not serious enough.
When Lagow was suspended, Petrini said she didn’t think he would be readmitted because of potential campus safety concerns.
Petrini also said she was discouraged by a Western administrator from pursuing charges through the legal system.
“Western is committed to supporting survivors of sexual assault, and undertakes efforts to inform survivors about various reporting options and resources and to enable them to make their own decision,” Cocke said, when asked about this. “Staff who handle sexual assault cases receive regular and ongoing training.”
While Petrini didn’t think the punishment was fitting, she said his suspension gave her a sense of safety she hadn’t had since her freshman year.
A long process
Before the suspension, Petrini spent two months bouncing between Consultation and Sexual Assault Support, the Equal Opportunity Office, the Office of Student Life, University Police and DVSAS, she said.
“No one has a damn clue what the other is doing and I had to first be a liaison for everyone before I could even start helping myself,” she said.
When she went into DVSAS to get a protection order, she said she broke down after being given a booklet-like stack of paperwork.
Petrini described feeling hopeless during this process. Some days, she couldn’t make herself go to class or work. Having to advocate for herself and retell her story over and over to men who didn’t seem to believe her was grueling, she said.
“I also didn’t feel believed by the men I spoke to, because ‘it’s hard to judge what happens behind closed doors,’” she said. “I will never forget when that was said to me [by campus administrators].”
Sledge was one of the administrators she said she had negative experiences with. She remembers feeling patronized, and didn’t feel he took her seriously, Petrini said.
“The assailant is always innocent until proven guilty, but I’m the one that’s a liar until proven that I’m telling the truth,” she said.
Western doesn’t comment on confidential conversations with any students, Cocke said in response.
“Decisions about violations of the [Student Conduct] Code are based on preponderance of the evidence; that is, whether it is more likely than not that the respondent violated the Code,” he said.
In fall 2016, around a year and a half after Petrini made her report, the investigation of sexual misconduct was transferred from the Office of Student Life to the Equal Opportunity Office, as the result of an internal investigation brought on by other students’ complaints. The Office of Student Life is still in charge of imposing sanctions based on investigations.
“The assailant is always innocent until proven guilty, but I’m the one that’s a liar until proven that I’m telling the truth.”
Petrini said she first went to CASAS, but was disappointed with the advocate she talked to, who she said did not do much other than express sympathy.
“I was waiting for a helpful response. I was hoping for some kind of counseling or some kind of reassurance that there is a way out of this darkness,” she said.
Michelle Langstraat, CASAS coordinator and sexual violence prevention specialist, said all CASAS advocates receive 55 hours of professional advocacy training, as well as other trainings arranged by Western.
She and Jon Dukes, the men’s violence prevention and mental health promotion specialist, supervise all cases, she said.
Petrini said working with DVSAS was a better experience and that the advocates there, as well as University Police Officer Luke Haas, were helpful.
Cocke said Western has updated policies for handling cases of sexual violence since then, including the Student Conduct Code. While instances of sexual violence are inherently difficult and often times complicated to investigate, the student conduct process is usually completed within several weeks, he said.
“Since fall 2016, a violence/sexual violence consultation team has met weekly during the academic year to coordinate outreach and support for students who have experienced and/or reported violence or sexual violence,” he said in an email.
The team is comprised of staff from CASAS, Residence Life, the Office of Student Life and the Equal Opportunity Office, as well as staff from the Counseling Center, Student Health Center and the other areas of the university when appropriate, Cocke said.
Lagow was readmitted and registered for classes fall quarter 2016, according to University Police records.
“That was the justice I got,” Petrini said.
Sledge reached out to Petrini to make sure she and Lagow would not have classes together.
However, Petrini began seeing him on campus that quarter when she walked to classes near the Communications Facility.
“I was assaulted and he got a slap on the wrist, and he got to come back to school and I had to walk by him,” Petrini said. “He got to walk on the campus he had assaulted me on. It felt like my safety didn’t matter.”
Petrini said Sledge proposed creating a movement schedule so she wouldn’t have to walk by Lagow. However, she said she doubted the university could monitor and enforce it, and that if Lagow broke it, it would just be her word against his again.
If a survivor and perpetrator are on the campus at the same time, action is determined on a case-by-case basis, Cocke said.
Options include administrative trespass orders or no-contact orders that typically include a minimum distance of 25 feet, he said.
Cocke said the student who receives sanctions has the burden to abide by them.
Petrini said the real problem was that Lagow was readmitted in the first place.
“I don’t think letting him back in because he needs a second chance because ‘He’s so smart and can be better’ [makes sense],” she said.
Petrini said if Western really adhered to a no-tolerance policy, there would be no need for this article.
Advocates have said that readmitting perpetrators makes it more difficult for survivors to recover.
“Especially in a learning environment like Western, it would definitely make it harder [to begin recovery],” Martín Prado, an advocacy counselor with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services Advocacy Counselor, told the Front last spring. “Of course [survivors] can be successful, but it would be easier to breathe if you knew the perpetrator wasn’t anywhere near you, and it would be beneficial not having to worry about them doing it to someone else.”
Lagow seemed to understand that he had benefited from concealing information on his initial application.
“I stand by the decision made there for the same reasons you wrote in the sentencing email (I probably would not have been accepted if I answered yes),” he wrote in his appeal letter.
“I was assaulted and he got a slap on the wrist, and he got to come back to school and I had to walk by him.”
Western began asking about felony convictions after a sex offender was admitted to Western in 2004. When the university was notified about his status by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, he was expelled.
While Western still asks for information about past or pending convictions in its admissions process, that may change soon with the passage of a new bill, SB 6582, Cocke said.
He said the bill prevents universities from asking about previous convictions in admission, rendering the issue moot in the future.
However, the bill still allows universities to develop a process to consider applicants’ criminal history as long as they do not ask for it initially, or use it to automatically deny admission.
When asked about this, Cocke said Western will review its admission procedures once guidance on compliance is provided by appropriate state agencies.
In 2013, the University of Washington also began asking about violent felony charges and sex offender registration on its application, after two Level 3 sex offenders registered for classes, according to The Seattle Times.
Critics have pointed out that asking about criminal history on applications can promote institutionalized racism. However, the University of Washington’s provost responded that the checks weren’t meant to screen out students, but determine specific sex offender or felony information, USA Today reported.
At the University of Washington, applicants who answered yes have their application reviewed by a committee with “expertise on diversity, criminal justice, campus safety and mental health.” Applicants who are denied application can appeal.
The police report shows University Police forwarded Petrini’s case to the Whatcom County prosecutor’s office on March 26, 2015.
However, Petrini says she was not contacted by the prosecutors, and no further action was taken.
Eric Richey, chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney, said he reviewed the case in 2015, but didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence to go forward. He said this doesn’t mean he didn’t believe the survivor, but that he didn’t think there was a chance for conviction in a trial by jury.
Cases in which the survivor knows the perpetrator are often difficult to prosecute, Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran said in an August interview.
McEachran said it is difficult to show the crime occurred and was not consensual. While his office just needs to meet the threshold of probable cause to arrest someone, the burden of proof for a conviction is “beyond reasonable doubt.”
He said if he knows he can’t get a conviction, he doesn’t take the case, as he feels that is unfair to all involved.
Richey said he doesn’t know why Petrini was not contacted, or if she was just not reached.
“It is unfortunate that the survivor did not receive contact from our office or the investigating agency,” he said.
He said that detectives talk to survivors that they have been working with, though he has talked to many survivors personally.
Petrini said she still has trouble sleeping at night and struggles with post-traumatic stress. For a while, she would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, she said.
Petrini graduated summer 2017 with a degree in communication sciences and disorders.
She reached out to The Western Front in February 2018 wanting to tell her story because sexual assault is so common, but swept under the rug, she said.
“How long do victims have to stay silent about their assaults?” Petrini said. “How long are we going to continue acting like just because this is such a common occurrence in our daily life that it’s OK to be complicit?”
Petrini said people need to stop protecting perpetrators and start providing more support for survivors.
While Western has made some changes with how it handles sexual assault since her case, Petrini said it still needs to improve.
She said that based on her experience, Western’s offices and other involved agencies need to be more in-tune with each other, so there is less burden put on survivors to figure out what they need to do and constantly retell their stories.
“Western’s administration as a whole really needs to be a little more empathetic with their community because so many people I know have chosen not to come forward because they know how hard it is,” she said. “Most people choose to stay quiet because of the wringer they put you through for an [insufficient] result.”
If survivors are taking significant time from their lives to go between departments in a search for justice, and telling their stories again and again to strangers, they’re probably telling the truth, she said.
Despite the difficulty she had reporting, Petrini said she wants people in situations similar to hers to not be afraid of speaking up.
“Don’t be afraid to come forward and say something, regardless of the magnitude or what you perceive the magnitude to be,” she said. “Even if the first person doesn’t listen or the second person doesn’t listen, somebody will understand, and you deserve to be heard. Don’t ever feel you are responsible for what happened to you.”
She hopes Western will ask survivors what they want to see happen and how they can feel safer on campus, because she didn’t get that opportunity.
Do you have experience reporting sexual violence at Western? Share your story with us here.
Editor’s note: This story is being published simultaneously by the AS Review and The Western Front. For more information read “How We Reported This Story.”
Updated April 17 at 9:40 a.m. to correct a typo.