The University’s new sexual assault policy, which will be enforced for the first time this month, puts a two-year limit on when victims can file formal complaints, setting GW apart from at least 50 other schools that lack restrictions.
The time window may reduce already-low rates of sexual assault reporting, according to campus security experts and sexual assault awareness advocates. Those experts said GW’s policy includes another barrier to reporting: It prevents students from anonymously taking their case through a formal judicial process against faculty or staff.
None of the sexual assault and harassment polices at 50 top-ranked colleges surveyed by The Hatchet, including New York University, Johns Hopkins University and University of Miami, institute a time window for victims of sexual assault to take their case through a judicial process. All of these schools also offer full preservation of a survivor’s anonymity when filing complaints.
GW administrators said they instituted the time limit because cases are nearly impossible to resolve after two years and may, at that point, be unfair to those accused of sexual assault because of the level of detail needed to solve the case. They also pointed to a clause in the new policy that allows students to bring sexual assault cases forward regardless of the time limit if they have “good cause.”
Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beth Nolan said administrators settled on two years because it will ensure that “complaints are still fresh and memories haven’t faded.” She added that they will track the effectiveness of the policy in the coming years to see whether it will need another overhaul, without sticking to “hard and fast rules.”
But Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit focused on campus crime prevention, said that kind of time window still takes rights away from sexual assault victims.
“If someone comes forward three years later, is it more difficult? Absolutely. It’s certainly more difficult to recount the event, to prove what happened,” Kiss said. “But again, I think it should be left in the hands of the person who wants to report. I would hate to see someone not report because that two-year limit has hit.”
Because two-thirds of sexual assault victims know their attacker, and because of a range of psychological and social factors, survivors are often reluctant to report their attack. The Center for Public Integrity found that college students report sexual assault even less frequently than the general public, with up to 95 percent of incidents going unreported.
Last fall, Duke University did away with its one-year statute to bring a complaint forward after students protested that it prevented victims from reporting.
Benjamin Reese, who is charged with ensuring Duke University’s compliance with government statutes against discrimination and sexual harassment, known as Title IX, called the university’s policy “better off.”
“We wanted to make sure that we were creating an environment that would encourage people who had concerns to be able to come forward at any point, recognizing that some people — for a host of different reasons — may come forward weeks after, months after or even years,” Reese said.
Universities were jolted into reconsidering their sexual assault policies after the Department of Education penned an open “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011, asking universities to do more to prevent and investigate sexual assaults, as well as to institute a minimum burden of proof in their sexual assault policies.
GW’s policy does not set a time window for informally settling a case without a hearing, which the University’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator Tara Pereira said makes up “99 percent” of cases at the school. Up to three sexual assault cases per year go through the University’s formal judicial process, she said, and a panel rules on these cases based on a “preponderance of evidence” – or 50.1 percent certainty – in line with the education department’s guidelines.
Pereira said she and other top administrators who helped create the policy – including Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed and Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell – needed to ensure the policy was also fair to students and employees accused of sexual assault.
“It’s much more popular to make sure you’re being fair to the complainant right now, but frankly, there is fairness the respondent deserves, and we need to make sure we’re upholding that,” Pereira said. “It has been a really delicate balance of making sure that we as a university are supporting our students, faculty and staff on both sides of this equation.”
The University’s interim policy, approved in the fall, set a 180-day window for reporting incidents, which drew criticism from campus groups, including Students Against Sexual Assault and the Student Association.
University President Steven Knapp said the new procedures helped ensure a fair process. “You want to give people as much time as is feasible to give to file those complaints, but the problem is, if you go on too long, it becomes increasingly difficult for the University to really get the information it needs to determine what occurred,” he said in an interview Friday.
GW student leaders still hope to convince administrators to reconsider. Nineteen SA senators signed an open letter last month, calling on top leaders to abolish the time window altogether.
SA Executive Vice President Kostas Skordalos, who partially based his campaign on raising sexual assault awareness, said he wants to see an “indefinite time period” for the policy, and that students will be turned off by the “good cause” component of the policy.
“The [two-year] number is limiting. It’s hard for an individual to think they have good cause,” Skordalos said.
Sen. Nick Gumas, CCAS-U, the letter’s author, said he will continue to push the University to strike it from the policy, but called the limit’s extension from 180 days “a step in the right direction.”
GW’s policy also strikes a blow to a survivor’s ability to remain anonymous during a hearing against a staff or faculty member. While students at 50 other top universities may remain confidential during judicial against university employees, GW sexual assault complainants cannot.
This clause goes against one of the principle guidelines — full anonymity — listed in an American Association of University Professors document that outlined its suggested policies and procedures for addressing sexual assault.
“I don’t know how anyone would be brave enough to report it, especially if it’s a person in a position of power [like a professor],” Kansas State University professor Donna Potts, one of the lead authors of the document, said an interview. “It took me years to use the word ‘rape.'”
Potts was raped by a professor as an undergraduate at Arizona State University and, since coming to terms with her assault, has advocated for awareness of sexual assault on college campuses.
Pereira said even the confidentiality offered to students when they accuse another student in the new policy will make it “fairly impossible” to adjudicate a case. She added that administrators did not plan to allow for anonymity during procedures against employees because the Department of Education did not call for it.
Nationally, many students claim their university falls short in the face of sexual assault. One in two college students gave their school a grade of C or below in addressing rape and sexual assault, according to a national Students Active for Ending Rape survey of more than 450 students.
– Colleen Murphy and Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.
This post was updated May 20, 2013 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet reported that sexual assault victims at GW cannot file a complaint anonymously against GW employees. They can file confidential complaints against them, but cannot remain anonymous during judicial proceedings.
Also, due to an editing error, The Hatchet stated Nick Gumas was one of several authors of an open letter to administrators. He was the only author, though 19 SA senators signed it.