WEB EXCLUSIVE: Students define sexual harassment

While the Faculty Senate and GW continue a three-year effort to draft an official sexual harassment policy, students said they have difficult time defining sexual harassment.

Sophomore Naomi Hackenburg said there are many forms and degrees of sexual harassment.

“It can be someone saying things or doing things that make you feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Sophomore Meaghan O’Keefe said it is hard to define sexual harassment without knowing the context of a specific situation. In her experience at GW, O’Keefe said she has never felt sexually harassed by a teacher or uncomfortable around a professor.

“Not even when a professor talked openly about his relationships (did I feel uncomfortable),” she said. “In fact he was one of my best teachers.”

GW does not have an official sexual harassment policy, but adopted an interim policy in April 1999. The policy defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal conduct of sexual nature” that are made with the condition of academic advancement or employment, interfere with a student’s academic work or create an intimidating academic environment.

David Cashdan, a lawyer at the D.C. firm Cashdan, Golden and Kane, said the definition of sexual harassment is ambiguous but generally requires more than a single episode to be considered harassment.

“Typically, in order for it to be actionable it needs to be continuous and pervasive,” he said.

The rights of an accused person have been a point of contention for professors. The Faculty Senate drafted a resolution stating that the proposed sexual harassment policy strips professors of certain rights, such as the right of the accused to a copy of the complaint and identity of the complainant.

“Under the proposed policy, you can file harassment against someone without the person being accused ever knowing who these claims are coming from, making it your word against theirs,” Berle said. “The complainant shouldn’t be favored over the defendant.”

O’Keefe said the policy the Senate was supposed to vote on Friday was too severe because it did not allow defendants to see charges filed against them. The revised policy, which is under consideration, includes this right.

O’Keefe said she agrees with the decision to allow defendants to see charges, which is a common right in most sexual harassment policies, she said.

Other students said the defendants should have the right to know the name of their accuser.

“Under the proposed policy, you can file harassment against someone without the person being accused ever knowing who these claims are coming from, making it your word against theirs,” sophomore Christian Berle said. “The complainant shouldn’t be favored over the defendant.”

Cashdan said he agrees with the initial informal complaint process outlined in the policy, which keeps people who file complaints anonymous.

“You would want people to be able to complain about anything,” he said.

The policy has a provision for a formal, written complaint process if the situation is not resolved informally through mediation.

Faculty members said the sexual harassment policy could limit their right to academic freedom in the classroom and their right to speak freely while teaching.

“That is a huge issue . the conflict between freedom of speech and sexual harassment,” Cashdan said.

-Seth Goldman contributed to this report.

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