Staff Editorial: Administrators must revisit the new sexual assault policy

Sexual assault is an alarming reality on college campuses across the country, and GW is unfortunately no exception. Four sexual abuse cases were reported within just the first two weeks of the semester.

Federal studies have found that 20 percent of college-aged women fall victim to some sort of sexual assault, and that 95 percent of such cases go unreported.

It is critical that students know what to do in the case of a traumatic event.

The University’s updated sexual assault policy, released Friday, is cumbersome and unclear.

*****

Shock. Fear. Distress. Confusion.

The range of emotions victims can experience following sexual assault is overwhelming. Many do not immediately feel comfortable turning to friends, counselors or police officers for help.

The biggest change to the sexual assault policy is that the University has placed a deadline on this process – a 180-day window for a victim to file charges against an alleged perpetrator. The old policy placed no restrictions on reporting time.

However, a victim might not reach the emotional threshold where one feels comfortable reporting in just six months. It is impossible to apply a systematic approach to a problem that is largely unpredictable.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania State University scandal – in which Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of sexually abusing 10 young boys over a 15-year time span – it is troubling to see GW place the onus on the victim to report the incident so quickly.

Under D.C.’s statute of limitations, victims of sexual assault have 10 to 15 years to report their cases to city authorities, depending on the age of the victim and the nature of the abuse.

Any form of sexual assault is traumatic. It is insulting to suggest that victims do not grapple with or cannot properly recount the experience after 180 days – especially after a group of men offered graphic accounts of assaults at the hands of Penn State’s Sandusky that took place when they were young boys.

While statutes of limitation exist to ensure the details of an incident do not blur as time passes, a 180-day limit is not long enough.

But the language provides some leeway.

According to the policy, a victim may report after the close of the 180-day period if there is “good cause.”

The indication that any impetus to report an incident after 180 days could not be considered “good cause” is offensive and sends the wrong message to students.

Saying some cases can be reported after 180 days if there is “good cause” implies that other cases are unworthy of reporting. And by including such vague wording in the policy, GW is now obligated to clarify to students what may or may not fall under the realm of “good cause.”

The University is our educator, our home, our police force, our safeguard and our guide. It should protect us so long as we are its students. A 180-day deadline is arbitrary and covers a scant portion of students’ GW careers.

Regardless of intent, the new policy appears to lift responsibility off the University’s shoulders and place the burden on students to monitor their well-being and safety once the time frame closes. It sends the wrong message to the student body, potentially deterring individuals from seeking help and adding more pressure to an already stressful situation.

And that message is disturbing.

*****

The harsh reality is that alcohol is often a factor in sexual abuses, as was the case in all four of the incidents reported during the first two weeks of the academic year.

Deputy Title IX Coordinator Tara Pereira told The Hatchet that underage victims who may have been drinking at the time of a sexual assault are “not likely” to face alcohol violation charges. “Not likely” is not an adequate explanation for students, and the procedure surrounding alcohol-related sexual assaults must be clearly outlined in the policy.

Students should not be deterred from reporting sexual assault for fear of facing alcohol violation charges on their disciplinary records. A cornerstone of the policy is to ensure that students feel comfortable approaching the authorities – an already emotionally trying task. In these cases even the chance of being sanctioned for underage drinking could become a deterrence.

*****

The new policy brings some encouraging changes.

Under the old policy, a victim was able to remain anonymous during both the initial consultation and the administrative review of his or her case. It was not until the final phase of the legal process – the formal hearing procedure – that a victim was required to disclose his or her identity.

Students now have the option of remaining anonymous throughout the entire judicial process, offering a necessary protection for victims.

We applaud the University’s attempt to offer students greater anonymity, in the hope that it encourages more victims to feel comfortable coming forward.

But there are limitations of remaining anonymous that the University must ensure students understand.

If a victim does not disclose his or her identity, it could become virtually impossible to move forward with an investigation. Without revealing details, it would become increasingly difficult to bring an alleged perpetrator to justice.

Administrators must clarify what anonymity can entail for the legal process so students can make informed decisions about how to proceed. Students should know their rights, along with any accompanying limitations.

*****

The way the University announced the new sexual assault policy last week – through a jargonistic Infomail that linked to the 21-page document – was frustrating.

It is the University’s responsibility to educate students on the new sexual assault policy, and there are better ways to explain the nuances that could affect their livelihoods.

It is wishful thinking to assume the average student will read and study a 21-page policy notice. The University should provide students with a fact sheet that would include a rundown of major changes in the sexual assault policy, a bulleted list of their victims’ rights and relevant emergency contact information.

The UAsk smartphone app, launched Sept. 10 by the organization Men Can Stop Rape, offers information on sexual assault victim resources for eight schools across D.C., including GW. We are pleased to learn that administrators are looking to add a similar guide to resources for the GW Mobile app, including contact information for support services and information on the sexual assault policy.

*****

The new policy is in an interim period, meaning there is still time for the University to make changes and ensure they represent the best interests of students.

It is laudable that the University has taken the time to review its policies in response to the Department of Education’s call in 2011 for swift and effective responses to sexual violence on campuses.

We hope students never have to face a situation in which they require a deep understanding of the sexual assault policy. But such circumstances are unpredictable, and in the event that an issue does arise, a policy means nothing if it is not easily accessible and understandable.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.