Student advocates and experts say University President Steven Knapp missed an opportunity to start a campus-wide conversation about sexual violence last week, when a statement from his office did not mention a sexual assault reported two days before in a Greek townhouse.
The assault, which allegedly occurred in the Phi Sigma Kappa townhouse, would mark at least the fifth sexual abuse report regarding a fraternity house over the last two years. In his message, Knapp focused on soothing concerns over former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s controversial remarks about preventing sexual assault on college campuses.
Knapp called sexual assault “utterly repugnant” and “unacceptable,” but communication experts say his remarks may not have gone far enough to address questions about GW’s response system for sexual assault.
“To comment on a past president without commenting on a current sexual assault causes me concern,” said Gerard Braud, a crisis communication and media training expert. “There’s a lack of congruency here to talk about one and not the other.”
Knapp said sexual assault on campus would “not be tolerated” in the statement. Braud, who runs Braud Communications, said GW could have used the statement to propel conversations about how to prevent future assaults from occurring.
The statement is one of the strongest Knapp has made about assault since GW revamped its sexual assault response policy in 2013.
“This was a golden opportunity for the University to launch a three-point or five-point plan on how to address it. It was an opportunity to have awareness seminars, approach the Greek council. There are many opportunities here that have been missed by someone releasing a vanilla statement,” Braud said. “I get very, very frustrated when I see statements like this come out that say nothing and don’t truly advance the cause.”
Knapp’s statement also could have served as a chance for the University to announce a new program to increase sexual assault awareness, said Marguerite Dorn, a lawyer and consultant on women’s issues.
“There are so many ways he could have spun this positively. Like here’s a jumping off point for us – something bad happened, let’s see if we can push forward,” Dorn said. “This is an important issue that’s recognized across the country he wouldn’t have been going out on a limb had he done so.”
‘Something people should be talking about’
Coupled with the uproar over Trachtenberg’s comments, Students Against Sexual Assault co-president Kirsten Dimovitz said she worried the administration wasn’t doing enough to address concerns about the alleged assault at Phi Sigma Kappa.
“It’s something that a lot of people are really shocked about. They are searching for details,” Dimovitz said. “For freshmen, they’ve been here for six days and this happened. That’s something people should be talking about.”
Sexual assault education has become a larger part of the Greek community over the past several years.
Last year, at least three chapters held bystander intervention training, which taught members how to step in and stop sexual assault.
“There has to be some follow up about what happened and what prevention looks like. Fraternities can be huge partners in this issue and fraternities can stop sexual assault,” Dimovitz said. “They have to do that through educating their members on what being a bystander looks like, what being an ally looks like, how to respect women and have follow up so this doesn’t happen next time.”
Dimovitz said the issue was “too serious to dance around,” and should be met with increased training and education at fraternities instead of sanctions like banning a chapter from campus.
Negar Esfandiari, the president of the Feminist Student Union, said she was surprised to read Knapp’s statement, which she called a “recycled response.”
She pointed out that across the country, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. A White House task force, which released recommendations in April for how universities can better respond to sexual violence, found that one in five college women have survived an assault. But victims report their attacks in only about 12 percent of cases.
“I think people think sexual assault is so traumatic that they don’t want to talk about it or acknowledge it. It’s very hush-hush,” Esfandiari said. “Especially after Trachtenberg’s comments, I think people going through a similar situation would feel super discouraged and obviously it’s hard to bring something up like that.”
An ongoing investigation
GW sent an alert to the community at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday, describing the suspect as a white man in his 20s with shaggy blonde hair who may be named “Sonny.” Law enforcement officials have identified and contacted the suspect, and a “thorough investigation” is ongoing, University spokeswoman Candace Smith said. She did not provide information about possible sanctions or charges, though she said the suspect is a student.
The Metropolitan Police Department, which is leading the investigation, declined to comment. A spokeswoman at MPD declined to provide more details about the investigation because a report of the incident is not yet complete.
The University has not released sanctions for assaults that have occurred in Greek townhouses. Phi Sigma Kappa is one of four Greek chapters with a privately owned townhouse, which belongs to their alumni organization.
Police investigated an incident in October 2012 at Beta Theta Pi’s 22nd Street townhouse, which was later marked as a closed case in the University’s crime log.
City police investigated an alleged sexual abuse at Tau Kappa Epsilon’s townhouse in March 2013 and two alleged abuses at Phi Kappa Psi’s townhouse in August 2012. UPD did not make any arrests, and alleged victims did not press charges in the Phi Kappa Psi incidents. Phi Kappa Psi and Tau Kappa Epsilon still have their on-campus townhouses, though Tau Kappa Epsilon’s 22nd Street townhouse is privately owned.
Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller and Greek life director Christina Witkowicki declined to provide details of the investigation or say if the report could impact the chapter’s judicial standing with the University. They also declined to comment on whether GW had sanctioned chapters in the past after sexual abuses were reported at their houses.
Konwerski, Miller and Witkowicki declined to say whether the alleged assault could cause the chapter to lose its townhouse. They declined to comment on whether they believe the Greek community receives enough training about sexual assault, and declined requests for phone interviews.
The national organization had not heard of an assault in the townhouse and did not know whether the chapter would face sanctions as recently as Thursday, said Michael Carey, a spokesman for Phi Sigma Kappa. He did not return a follow-up request for comment.
Sonny Finch, the president of Phi Sigma Kappa, did not return requests for comment. Peyton Zere, president of the Interfraternity Council, and Panhellenic Council president Kasey Packer also did not return multiple requests for comment.
Nationally, members of Greek life and freshmen are most frequently involved in alcohol abuse and sexual assault cases, according to a report by the National Institute of Justice. At GW, the Greek population has swelled over the last decade, now making up about 30 percent of campus.
At colleges and universities, the first two months of school are often known as a “red zone” because of increased instances of sexual and substance abuse.
The federal government is investigating more than 70 schools for their handling of sexual assault cases. GW is not on the list. The University reported 37 instances of alleged sexual assault to the Department of Education between 2010 and 2012, the most recent data available.
Frank Lomonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the most common punishment for sexual assault is an individual’s suspension from school. But he said because the townhouse is within the bounds of campus, GW might be able to boot the chapter off campus. He said the chapter could also lose its charter if a member of the fraternity is found guilty of the assault.
“But I can’t say it’s really common,” Lomonte said. “Typically, penalties against a Greek organization are because of drugs or alcohol at parties. Typically, they don’t blame the entire organization because one member engaged in some act of rogue behavior.”