GW to tweak faculty-student harassment policy

Students who report harassment by faculty or staff will no longer have to reveal their names to file a formal complaint, a University official said this week.

Tara Pereira, an administrator who has helped recraft the University’s policy on sexual assault over the last year, said when the final version is approved by this summer, members of the University community can remain anonymous throughout the reporting process.

The policy, currently in the interim stage, is an effort to align GW with federal standards put forward by the Department of Education in April 2011.

Pereira, who oversees the University’s compliance with the discrimination prevention act Title IX said she supports the change because it falls in line with the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which called for schools that receive federal funds to treat alleged perpetrators and victims equally – whether they are students, faculty or staff.

She said three students have reported incidences of sexual harassment by different faculty members between July 1, 2012 and March 5, 2013. The cases involved “inappropriate comments” toward the students and did not result in formal complaints or investigations, she said.

The interim policy already permitted students who filed complaints against other students to remain anonymous at any stage, including the hearing process. But Pereira said when victims do not disclose their identities, particularly during a hearing, it inhibits their case.

She said she would add another amendment to the policy to help victims understand when it is helpful for them to disclose their identities, such as when a victim wants to issue a restraining order against an offender.

Anonymity is almost impossible to maintain during University investigations because alleged perpetrators need to be asked about specific times and places, Pereira said.

“Reporting anonymously is easy. It’s if you want the University to take any action, it starts to get more difficult to maintain your anonymity,” Pereira said.

She said many victims ultimately disclose their names when reporting an offense.

When a student accuses a faculty or staff member of sexual harassment, Pereira conducts an investigation personally rather than referring the case to the University’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

She said students are even less likely to come forward about sexual harassment when the perpetrator is a faculty member, particularly in the case of Ph.D. students, who work closely with faculty members who can influence a student’s ability to get their dissertation.

“It’s an incredibly difficult situation,” Pereira said. “It’s because it’s based on power and that helps to keep someone’s mouth closed like you would not believe.”

The Faculty Senate approved the University’s interim sexual assault policy in September, which also assures confidentiality to accusers and prohibits victims from directly mediating with offenders.

The University has made other changes to the policy since then. In January, Pereira said GW would extend the time-frame during which victims of sexual assault could take action against an alleged perpetrator to one and a half years, after considering a 180-day window.

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