Students, faculty reassess GW sexual assault policy

The University rape and sexual assault policy may undergo changes soon as administrators, faculty members and students re-evaluate the policy’s language.

Interest in making changes to the policy’s language sprung up in April 1997 as a result of a Student Association Senate resolution approved by Damian McKenna, then SA president. But the review of the resolution only recently has begun.

“The (SA) Senate believes that the current University definitions of rape and sexual assault need substantial improvement,” according to the resolution. “The (SA) Senate believes that current penalties for rape and sexual assault leave open the possibility of tainting both the social and learning environments of (GW).”

The resolution proposed changes to the definitions of “rape” and “sexual assault.” Specifically, it encouraged the University to clarify that rape is a form of sexual assault. Also, it proposes a more detailed definition of consent and changes to the sanctions for rape and sexual assault.

“The issue of consent is critical,” said Adam Siple, co-chair of the Joint Committee of Faculty and Students, and a member of the JCFS subcommittee that is reviewing the policy.

“I think consent is one issue,” said Mike Walker, senior assistant dean of students and a member of the JCFS subcommittee. “The other issue is sanctions.”

Jahna Hartwig, a former Student Association senator who co-sponsored the initial resolution that proposed changes to the policy, said GW needs to take a firm stance on these issues.

“Right now, our policy on sexual assault is too lax,” Hartwig said. “We’re trying to set standards of acceptable behavior for our community. Our University needs to be proactive on this issue.”

The current policy suggests “recommended minimum sanctions of a one-year suspension and eviction from the residence halls or University-owned housing.”

Both Siple and Hartwig said they would like to see stricter consequences.

“We’re trying to up the sanctions,” said Siple, a co-sponsor of the resolution. “For rape, the only recommended sanction should be expulsion.”

“I believe that the penalty for rape should be expulsion and that the penalty for sexual assault should be suspension for at least one year,” Hartwig said.

Siple said members of the University community are concerned such sanctions could tie the hands of Student Judicial Services.

However, Walker said Student Judicial Services would not be forced to automatically implement an expulsion penalty.

“They’re not mandatory sanctions, they’re recommended minimums,” Walker said.

In the past, students have been able to influence the University’s handling of sexual assault and rape, administrators said.

Siple said some students complained about how the University Counseling Center deals with sexual assault and rape.

But the University Police Department continues to address its policies, said UPD Director Dolores Stafford.

The department’s annual crime report shows comprehensive data about sexual assault crimes. She said the report lists both on- and off-campus sexual offenses.

“We report more than what we’re required by law,” Stafford said.

Siple said “the reporting procedure wasn’t exactly open enough” in the University Counseling Center, which also handles student complaints.

Steven Van Wagoner, a psychologist with the University Counseling Center, said the center continues to re-evaluate its services.

“Two years ago during Issue Awareness Night, a couple of people expressed dissatisfaction,” Van Wagoner said. “We listened to what people were saying.”

Van Wagoner said numerous student concerns were addressed.

“I think it’s been resolved,” he said. “If it hasn’t, I want to know about it.”

Van Wagoner said the Counseling Center has an annual “in-house” evaluation and also conducts formal evaluations of individual student experiences. He said he believes the perceptions about the Counseling Center have changed.

“My perception is there is a much more positive feeling about the Counseling Center,” he said.

Siple and Walker said the subcommittee will suggest changes to the current language about consent and sanctions.

“The committee is doing its homework,” Walker said. “We’re going to make some well-thought out suggestions.”

“We’re going to have a better written policy,” Siple said.

Administrators said ideas to change the language concerning this issue in the Student Code of Conduct are on the table.

The JCFS subcommittee said it plans to review the language during an upcoming meeting.

Walker said the subcommittee was created to determine whether the policies needs to be changed. He said the University is open to looking at any policy students believe should be reviewed.

The process of changing language in the code, however, is complex and it requires the approval of the University’s Board of Trustees.

“The process to consider change has begun,” Walker said.

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