Debate team suspended for alcohol violations, allegations of misconduct

Lane Barton

Emily Lin-Jones and Andy Monserud contributed reporting.

*Names have been changed at the request of sources.

On April 9, the Whitman Debate team was suspended for a minimum of two years after an investigation by administration revealed violation of team and school policies. The investigation primarily focused on violations of alcohol protocol by debaters and coaches during a 2015 tournament. Allegations of gender discrimination and potentially unsafe situations occurring over the course of the season were also presented to investigators.

Investigation into Alcohol Conduct

The investigation process centered on allegations of misconduct during a February 2015 tournament at the University of Texas at Austin. Later that month, Associate Dean of Students Juli Dunn and Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland interviewed some members of the policy team and coaches regarding possible alcohol policy violations and an alleged relationship between a coach and student. Prior to Spring Break, a decision was made to put the team on probation. During this time, it was expected that a Whitman Campus Security guard would chaperone the Policy Team to their next tournament to ensure the safety of debaters and that no further policy violations would occur.

One former coach, who asked not to be named for legal reasons, admitted that at least one alcohol policy violation had occurred at the Texas tournament, in which the coach had a drink in a hotel bar with a student who had recently turned 21. Team guidelines, which were established last year prior to the hiring of new coaches, prohibit students from drinking at away tournaments.

“Obviously [I] made a mistake. I didn’t think it was a fireable offense to have a drink with an of-age student … After that had occurred we took steps to rectify that misperception [on the team],” said the former coach, who recalled telling investigators about the incident while being interviewed in February.

That violation, along with separate allegations of misconduct on the policy team, eventually led to a decision to cancel the remainder of the Policy Debate team’s season. The decision was announced to team members on March 16, and the two policy coaches were dismissed from their positions on the same day.

On April 9 it was announced that the entire program –– both policy and parliamentary procedure teams –– would be suspended for a minimum of two years.

“To be clear … the primary reason Debate has been suspended for two years is a direct violation of their policies and procedures,” said Dunn.

Concerns with Gender Discrimination and Harassment

Though they were not the focus of this year’s investigation, concerns regarding gender discrimination and harassment had also been brought to the attention of the administrators running the investigation.

“The allegations of gender harassment, discrimination … I think it just adds to the decision which is ‘We’ve done this for [three] years with this team without a lot of impact in terms of being able to get the behaviors turned around.’ If in addition to alcohol there’s also these other concerns that are circling about behaviors that we weren’t able to confirm, that’s problematic,” said Dunn.

Although the administration could not disclose specific allegations, individuals involved with debate, some of whom wished to remain anonymous due to continued interactions with team members, spoke to The Pioneer about issues they claim to have experienced in the past year.

Instances of female debaters possibly being treated unfairly were among the complaints brought forward to administrators. A member of the team, who wished to remain anonymous, contended that some female debaters were sent to compete in fewer intercollegiate tournaments and were given less feedback than male debaters.

In a letter to The Pioneer, Director of Debate Kevin Kuswa cited the many steps taken to improve the program’s inclusivity since its Title IX review last year, denying that decisions to take debaters to tournaments were based on gender.

“Debate is a competitive activity that requires coaches to make difficult decisions … All travel-related decisions were made according to our team policy which was crafted with, and approved by, the Whitman administration. It is not for me to question the feelings of individual debaters … but I can say that we have worked extremely hard to provide coaching and support to all of our students,” said Kuswa in the letter.

Letter from Director of Debate Kevin Kuswa by WhitmanPioneer

Prior to the suspension of the policy team in March, some team members claim they brought forward concerns to administrators regarding their personal safety at debate tournaments.

“Women have felt unsafe at debate tournaments for reasons of sexual misconduct,” said Taylor*, another debate member.

In an email, President Bridges acknowledged that reports of harassment and alcohol use at national tournaments had influenced the administration’s decision to suspend Whitman’s program.

“The two-year suspension will give us an opportunity to explore [national debate] culture more carefully, speak with other institutions who are competing in [Policy or Parliamentary Procedure], and determine whether there [are] inherent or structural issues at the national level that would make it difficult for us to ever put a team back on the road and ensure, to a great deal of accuracy, the safety of all the participants involved,” he said in his email.

Former and current debaters claim that multiple complaints have been brought to the administration about gender, sexual misconduct and safety issues on the team over the past four years. Senior Annabelle Marcovici, a former debater who quit the team in 2011 during former director Jim Hanson’s tenure, mentioned feeling alienated by the atmosphere while on the team.

“It’s just sort of a climate that makes you feel like shit. My first semester on the team I couldn’t tell you why I hated [being on the team] so much … It’s because it just becomes so normal that you don’t even realize that people are saying shitty things to you and not looking you in the eye when they speak to you … It’s a bunch of things like that that add up to make you feel like you are nothing,” said Marcovici.

Although the program took steps to create a safer team atmosphere following a temporary suspension in 2013, some debaters feel that, in addition to the alcohol violations identified during the investigation, problems with team culture still persisted.

“It’s really easy for people to be like, ‘This is just about alcohol –– point me to the specific instances since January that this has occurred,’ and it’s just not that simple,” said senior Lauren Hauck, a member of the policy team.

Reactions and the Future

In regards to the suspension itself, several debaters have taken to public forums, including social media, to express anger and sadness at the loss of an activity they value so much.

“The last week has been kind of heartbreaking. It’s immense, the loss that I feel, in terms of the opportunities that I no longer have access to because I can’t debate, as well as the relationships … that are no longer feasible because I can’t debate,” said sophomore policy debater Jack Lassiter.

At the same time, there are those on the team who recognize that the decision might have been necessary to avoid continuing the trends of the past couple years.

“I think the suspension was the only option. Maybe not four years ago it was the only option, maybe we could have saved the debate team if we had suspended it for a year last year, but I don’t think we can move forward from where we are right now without phasing out a huge portion of the debaters and coaches,” said Hauck.

During a short and tense meeting with President Bridges shortly before an email was sent out to campus, debaters were informed of the program’s suspension. They said, however, that they were not provided any more information that what was shared publicly.

Some debaters express concerns about the investigation process resulting in the suspension of the parliamentary team, even though only Policy team members were involved in the investigation and the allegations surrounding the February tournament. These debaters say they were not made aware, in their meetings with administrators, of specific violations of policy that would justify the suspension of the entire team.

“We were told that the team was being canceled because there were violations of policy. It was not explained to us what those violations were or why they were so bad that they justified canceling the entire program for everyone on the team for two years. It was not ever explained to us what degree of infractions regarding policy are sufficient to warrant a cancellation,” said Margaret Rockey, a junior parliamentary debater.

In the meantime, current and former debaters are organizing to possibly appeal the decision, although, some say, the lack of transparency from administrators has made it difficult to know how to proceed.

“I don’t know what I can and can’t do at any point in time because I have so little information,” said Lassiter.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly labeled Lauren Hauck as a junior. She is a senior.