Sexual assault policy reassessed for clarity

The University will formalize its sexual assault policy over the next year to better align GW’s approach with heightened federal standards for investigating sexual assault on college campuses.

A more precise distinction between sexual assault and other violent offenses in the code of student conduct will demonstrate GW’s zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and clarify existing rights of those involved, Assistant Dean of Students Tara Pereira said.

Pereira estimated that the clarified definition will be added to the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities in the fall and will be expanded into a stand-alone policy the following semester.

“[The policy] will be much more explanatory so you don’t have to dig for days to find this information, so that it’s much more readily available to the campus community,” Pereira said.

The new policy will make explicit the rights of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator and increase training for University staff to more clearly comply with the “Dear Colleague” letter released by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in April 2011.

In the letter, institutions of higher education were asked to make the publication of a sexual assault policy a top priority. It also explained the sexual assault provisions of Title IX, which mandates that no person can be discriminated against based on sex – including harassment and sexual assault – at universities that receive federal funding, or else the university may be held liable in court.

“We believe our sexual harassment policy, which also applies to sexual violence, complies with Title IX,” Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed, who also serves as Title IX coordinator, said. “However, in 2011 the Department of Education issued additional guidance on this subject, which we are reviewing carefully to determine what changes and additions we might productively make in our policy.”

GW’s revised policy will explicitly state the right of complainants to be present throughout the hearing, notified of the hearing’s outcome and appeal the ruling if they choose.

“These things were already part of our process, they just weren’t explained well in our writing,” Pereira said.

Reed said her role in enhancing staff education and training would create “an environment that does not tolerate incidents of sexual assault.” She is working to develop an online learning tool for staff that will help them to identify and respond to sexual harassment and violence on campus.

Last academic year, three students were found guilty of sexual assault – the most in three years.

“Sexual assault is the most serious and common crime that faces colleges and universities across the country,” Daniel Carter, a consultant and expert on campus security, said. Many students who are victims of sexual offenses do not report the crime, he said.

One in every six American women, 80 percent of whom are under the age of 30, are victims of rape or attempted rape, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

A sexual assault task force was created in fall 2010 to address the issue of sexual crimes at the University. The resulting committee formed to craft the new policy is comprised of students, faculty, staff and the University’s legal team.

According to the current Code of Student Conduct, sexual assault is defined as “inflicting any sexual invasion (including but not limited to sexual intercourse) upon any person…without the person’s consent.”

The more comprehensive definition in the code will encourage victims of sexual assault to report the crimes by making them more aware of their exact rights, but will not change the sanctions perpetrators face, Pereira said.

“Sexual assault is not like any other assault,” sophomore Jane Markowitz, executive vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said. “There’s more to it than punching someone in the face.”

In addition to amending the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities, the University plans to compile an online resource center for simplified and more visible information about coping with and reporting sexual assault, as well as procedures for victims, alleged perpetrators, staff and faculty.

“Without the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, colleges and universities were sweeping these things under the rug,” Pereira said.

Staff in Pereira’s office compiled research of other universities that recently revamped their sexual assault policies, noting that the guidelines of Skidmore College and Iowa State University will likely inform the comprehensive stand-alone sexual assault policy.

Though the new document will not be released until next year, Pereira said she has already formulated an initial draft.

“The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter is so all-encompassing of so many pieces that there are 100 moving parts,” Pereira said. “This is legal compliance, so we need to get this right.”

The policy comes as Pereira also reevaluates the University’s alcohol policy and months after she overhauled Student Judicial Services into two offices that handle student behavioral offenses based on severity.

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