Updated: Aug. 31, 2014 at 9:08 p.m.
The University is still without one of its permanent liaisons between sexual assault victims and administrators, nine months after GW’s prevention and response chief stepped down.
Instead, GW has relied on an outside lawyer since May who has met with students twice and is preparing recommendations for top officials to improve their response to sexual assault while the Title IX coordinator search continues.
The lack of a permanent leader has students saying sexual assault is not receiving enough attention, while experts say an outside consultant is just a Band-Aid over a deeper issue: an almost year-long holding pattern.
Maya Weinstein, the director of policy and outreach for Students Against Sexual Assault, said no matter what suggestions the consultant and her team provide, real progress won’t come until a coordinator is hired.
“There’s no Title IX coordinator and that’s been since November. That’s bad. You can’t move forward if you don’t have someone in the position,” Weinstein said. “It’s great that she’s talking and they told her to talk to students, but you can’t do anything without the position being filled.”
The University hired higher education consultant Ann Franke in May – mirroring a nationwide trend as colleges look to strengthen their policies against sexual violence.
Mark Wynn, a consultant who has spent 25 years training police, advocates and prosecutors about sexual violence, said the vacancy could leave holes in the University’s overall response.
“It’s either a priority or it’s not. It would be like me saying we haven’t had a police chief in 10 months. That’s silly,” Wynn said.
GW reported 37 incidents of alleged forcible sexual assault to the Department of Education between 2010 and 2012, according to the most recent data.
Franke met with a handful of students who are among the University’s most outspoken on sexual assault. She is preparing suggestions for administrators that include overhauling the University’s year-old sexual assault resource website HAVEN and hiring a sexual assault counselor in the University Counseling Center.
“[Franke] was supposed to bridge the gap over the summer,” said Kirsten Dimovitz, co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault. “The University wanted to gather information and have a dialogue, so that was her – she was the stepping stone.”
GW’s former deputy Title IX coordinator, Tara Pereira, announced last November she would leave after 14 years at the University, which included two years meeting with survivors and rewriting the sexual assault policy. Since she left, her duties have fallen on two other administrators who balance several other roles.
GW is also hiring a second coordinator to help educate and support students who report complaints, University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said.
Csellar said the “search continues” for the coordinator position and declined to provide a specific timeline for when it will be filled or how long Franke will remain at GW. Experts say hiring a Title IX coordinator can take up to 10 months.
Recommendations for change
Dimovitz, who met with Franke last week, said she was initially worried Franke would act as “a roadblock to the administration,” which has felt farther away since Pereira left last fall. Dimovitz said SASA met with Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed about three times last year, but had met with administrators more frequently when Pereira was revamping GW’s sexual assault policy.
“We went from Tara, who was great at her job and did so much, that it turned out the reason she ended up not staying was because it has a high burn out,” Dimovitz said. “She was a great resource for us and a great resource for survivors. So having even someone else step up like Terri, it’s hard to fill Tara’s shoes.”
Pereira did not return a request for comment.
As Franke continues working with students, student advocates say there are many areas where she can help make improvements. Students who met with Franke said the sexual assault counselor position at UCC could be modeled on other free counseling programs in the city.
The students said the University website HAVEN, which Pereira launched last year, seems to have fallen as a priority since she stepped down. Franke told students the website, which Pereira pitched as a “one-stop shop” for students looking for resources, has dead-end links.
“Nobody likes it all that much,” Dimovitz said. “You go to a resource and there’s nothing there. It’s a list of people and contacts but not bios or things that make it less scary.”
A large vacancy, slow progress
Since Pereira left, GW has divvied up the responsibilities of deputy Title IX coordinator – which include meeting with survivors and monitoring GW’s compliance with federal laws.
Suzanne Combs, GW’s victim services coordinator, meets with students, faculty and staff who come forward about sexual assault. She is also leads education outreach and the University Police Department’s Connect program.
Reed serves as GW’s Title IX coordinator and has four assistant coordinators. She oversees the University’s compliance with Title IX on top of her duties to improve the University’s diversity policies and lead a group on college affordability, which experts say may limit GW’s emphasis on sexual assault issues.
Franke declined requests for an interview and deferred to a University spokeswoman. “I am not in a position to respond to media inquiries,” she said.
Franke told the students that “a lot of résumés” are coming in for the coordinator position, Dimovitz said. The students said she will likely leave GW once the coordinator is hired, perhaps as soon as this fall.
Weinstein and Dimovitz sat in on interviews with several candidates for the coordinator position last spring – along with Student Association Sen. Omeed Firouzi, U-At Large – but the students have not heard more details about the position since then.
Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, said Franke’s hiring may be a step toward selecting a coordinator who fits GW’s needs.
“I think it is a good sign that GW maybe recognizes that there were some deficits or needed some changes and is doing them,” she said.
Bruno also said as sexual assault has drawn national attention, universities looking to fill Title IX positions are dealing with increasingly competitive hiring pools.
“In the last nine months these jobs have been posting like wildfire. I feel like there are new openings every day – so the market is saturated with these openings but not necessarily with qualified applicants,” Bruno said.
The Department of Education is investigating more than 60 schools for mishandling sexual assault cases, though GW is not one of them. The White House released a set of recommendations for schools to improve sexual assault responses last spring, and a group of senators passed a bill on the issue earlier this month.
Part of a larger trend
As sexual assault has skyrocketed to the top of the national agenda, some advocates worry consultants may try to turn a quick profit from schools looking to protect themselves.
Brett Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, made headlines this summer when a Buzzfeed article called him the country’s “most successful sexual assault consultant.” The firm represents 50 schools as their chief legal counsel for sexual assault.
Sokolow said consultants bring a valuable perspective to officials who have a hard time keeping up with changing legislation and the increasingly loud voices of student advocates. Schools may hire a consultant to make sure they’re following laws, or to advise them on assault cases so they can “defend their decisions later,” he said.
“The biggest key benefit is objectively seeing where the compliance challenges lie, which is often difficult for the campus to assess itself,” Sokolow said. “The biggest drawback is that outsiders don’t know the campus culture, the politics and how the change process is best navigated in a closed system.”
He added that the business of hiring sexual assault consultants is “booming.” Consultants can pull in anywhere from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work, he said.
The University declined to provide details about how much Franke is being paid.
Annie Clark, co-founder of the advocacy group IX Network, said consultant hiring spiked last year, especially among schools that had complaints filed against them. Though consultants bring an outside perspective, she said they must also take time to learn about each campus’ culture.
“If a school is hiring a consultant proactively and believes it will help and they’re taking input seriously, then it can be beneficial,” Clark said. “For a lot of schools, it was for PR reasons.”
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that GW would hire an assistant to the new Title IX coordinator. The University actually plans to hire a second coordinator. We regret this error.