A portrait of dating violence on campus: Five years at GW marked by harassment, stalking and trauma

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A GW alumnus reportedly attacked a female graduate student in a park on E Street and Virginia Avenue in March 2013, according to a University Police Department report. When she prepared to leave, the alumnus “grabbed her purse and would not let go,” and when she pulled her purse back, he “grabbed her and pinned her to the railing over the highway,” according to the UPD report.

This is part one of a three-part series chronicling an abusive relationship between two GW students. We cover how the relationship fell apart, the healing process and the intricacies of GW’s judicial process. Parts two and three will be published over the next two weeks.

The female freshman and male sophomore met at a sorority’s lingerie party in February of 2011. He comforted her after seeing her cry.

She said at first he seemed charming, but as the relationship progressed, she started to notice red flags: He would overstep the boundaries she had set, contact her “relentlessly” and keep files of the photos of them together, as well as emails and screenshots of texts and Facebook chats they sent each other.

“I kind of ignored that and thought, ‘It’s a little bit strange, but the rest of this is very charming,’” she said. “I had felt he was very safe. I felt like it was the type of thing where if he liked me so much, he would want to protect me.”

The female student, as well as her family, friends and coworkers, were granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. While campus sexual assault has come into focus nationwide over the last year, the intricacies of dating violence are rarely discussed. This portrait of two GW students seeks to illustrate how dating violence is not black and white: The female student says she is not a “perfect victim” but still tried to protect herself, and the male student said he never intentionally hurt her.

This story is the first in a three-part series giving a close look at dating violence in a university setting: the inner-workings of a relationship, the University Counseling Center’s response to survivors of dating violence and GW’s judicial process.

Over the course of about four years, he allegedly threatened to kill her and her ex-boyfriend. He allegedly attacked her in a park off campus. He stalked her online and she punched him – not out of self-defense – according to police reports and hours of interviews with The Hatchet. Both students also broke two No Contact orders that GW officials put in place during their time as undergraduates.

Now in her second year of a joint-degree program at GW, the female graduate student says University officials have mishandled her case – taking days or weeks to respond to her emails and failing to reassure her that she had access to resources.

She obtained an Order of Protection through the D.C. court system for the first time last month — a decision she said was made because she has given up on GW’s ability to protect her. The male alumnus accepted the terms of the agreement with no admission of guilt.

A supplement attached to the protection order outlines incidents when the alumnus reportedly stalked the graduate student online. He emailed her 41 times between November 2014 and January 2015 despite her requests to stop, including 12 times in a three-hour period in December 2014, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Hatchet.

The ‘happiest times’
She was on a break with a boyfriend from a different university during the spring of her freshman year, and she said she liked how the male GW student paid special attention to her. She spent time with him and his friends, he went out for crepes with her when her mom came to visit, and he gave her a Tiffany necklace when she left D.C. for the summer.

When they got back to campus in fall 2011, they were inseparable until his year-long study abroad program began about a month into the semester. She said over those weeks, their relationship got more serious as they visited the Botanic Garden near the Capitol and he filled her room with flowers.

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He called those days the “happiest times of both of our lives.” He agreed to speak to The Hatchet on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

She said during that time, which she described as “really beautiful,” they took a walk along the canal in Georgetown. During their walk, she saw a large piece of driftwood, which reminded her of the driftwood her mom collects for her garden. She wanted to bring it home despite it being too heavy to carry. The next day, he called her outside of her residence hall – he had gone back to get the stump of wood.

“That story became epic to me and my friends,” she said.

He said that the pair would take walks between Foggy Bottom and the Mount Vernon Campus and send messages to each other all day. The also went to see “The Great Gatsby” movie together, met up off campus and picnicked in an E Street park. When they went abroad and went home for breaks, they would Skype frequently.

“It would be like, ‘When would you go to bed? I’m going to bed at the same time. Let’s be on Skype.’ I’d see her room. I’d see her balcony. I’d see everything she was doing. I would see what she bought. I was seeing what she was wearing. I would see how she dressed before she went out. I would see everything,” he said.

She completed her undergraduate degree in three years, graduating in 2013. A University spokeswoman confirmed that the male student graduated from GW and has not been enrolled since 2013.

A behavior shift
Even though the University’s judicial office issued two No Contact orders between the students during their time as undergraduates, the stalking and harassment continued.

The male alumnus said the relationship did not involve dating violence, and said during an interview that he would never hurt the graduate student.

When the male alumnus went abroad during his junior year, from fall 2011 to spring 2012, she said his behavior changed and he became “possessive, controlling, and verbally and emotionally abusive.”

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In January 2012 – while the male alumnus was still abroad – he sent “some threatening emails about killing her” as well as another GW student and a former boyfriend on “numerous occasions,” according to a University Police Department report obtained by The Hatchet.

She and her former boyfriend had dated on and off at the beginning of college, she said. The former boyfriend said he received death threats from the male alumnus through Facebook, which were in “a long stream of like 30 messages” that were “very garbled.”

“I was kind of freaked out just because I’d never gotten death threats before,” the former boyfriend said. “I didn’t know how people deal with that.”

The graduate student, who was in her second undergraduate year at GW at the time, decided to file a report with Student Rights and Responsibilities that January after more people besides herself were targeted.

“I decided, ‘OK, I have to do something about the situation because I have to take responsibility,’” she said.

The male alumnus said the police reports “just don’t tell the story – that’s the problem.” He said the emails were sent when he was upset or experiencing the emotions of their relationship, and that they were not characteristic of how he conducts himself.

“I don’t think I threatened to kill anyone, and if I did, I never meant it,” he said.

But police reports detail incidents of cyber harassment and emails he sent to the graduate student that were reviewed by The Hatchet included sexually explicit, obscene and aggressive messages.

University officials then issued a No Contact order in January 2012, which banned the two from communicating in person, via phone or any other technology, through friends or in any other way, according to the report obtained by The Hatchet.

The female graduate student said the alumnus “never stopped harassing” her once the order was in place. She spoke again with UPD, filtered his emails to a trash folder, blocked him on Facebook, changed her cell phone number and tried to ignore him.

Continuing the relationship after trauma abroad
The graduate spent the fall semester of her third year of undergraduate studies abroad. The summer before she left, she unblocked the alumnus on Facebook and responded to the messages he sent while the No Contact order was still in place. And while she was overseas, she reached out to him when she felt lonely and had difficulty adjusting to a new place.

She said he became her main “support system” after she was raped and mugged by a stranger and then given a date rape drug on a separate occasion. She never reported those incidents. While she was abroad, she knew she could message him or call him and he would respond or answer – no matter the time of day.

“It was difficult, especially in my weakest moments because he’d never stop contacting me, and then in my weakest moments to know, ‘Oh, I can write back and he’s gonna read it and tell me I’m beautiful and tell me he still loves me and tell me I’m just amazing,’” she said.

The alumnus said that during their relationship, he would always be on “standby” to respond with whatever she needed, whenever she needed it.

“She’s very precious to me and delicate to me, so if there’s anything in here that anyone thought I’d ever hurt her, it’s the exact opposite. If anything came in the way of hurting her, I would stop it,” he said.

After remaining in close contact during her months abroad, she removed the No Contact order so the two could begin dating again when she returned to campus in January 2013.

Their relationship after she returned to campus illustrates the gray areas that are common in cases of dating violence, experts said. Both students admitted to breaking the No Contact orders, and she admitted to hitting the alumnus once out of frustration. She said those actions have not made her a “perfect victim” and complicated the situation when she later tried to protect herself.

“It happened so slowly over time, it’s hard to recognize the unhealthy behaviors and where it crosses over into, ‘This isn’t OK,’” she said. “I’m a fixer, so when he first started speaking to me in such an angry and hateful way, my response was, ‘He has issues. We need to work these out. I want to help him. This is someone I love.’”

She said their relationship that semester immediately became toxic and “it was clear that nothing had changed or that things had gotten worse.” The alumnus would become aggressive or critical, and get angry if she didn’t respond to his messages quickly, she said. He denies that the relationship became more violent when she returned from abroad.

“It’s just so weird in situations like that – the kind of energy and connection you can have with a person despite the kind of violence that has happened,” she said. “And so no matter how much we were apart and felt in control and like we could act differently this time, we would always slide right back into it.”

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Throughout their relationship, she struggled to know what behavior was appropriate because she said she didn’t have any examples of healthy relationships to imitate. She said she comes from a family environment where “the men you’re supposed to love tell you they hate you and that’s part of it.”

Several experts said setting boundaries can be one of the most complicated aspects of dating violence, especially because the survivor may love the perpetrator and struggle to shut him or her out.

“A lot of times, there are positive things about the person or the relationship,” said Paul Schewe, the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence and an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Once you do love someone, it’s tough to stop loving them even if it’s bad.”

The graduate student said she tried breaking up with him early in the semester, but he continued contacting her. She also tried to take breaks from campus to escape his constant contact, spending weekends in Philadelphia and New York.

Becoming more violent
By the spring of 2013, she said everything had “escalated” to the point that they were not seeing each other and she told the alumnus she no longer wanted to talk to him.

But the two struggled to separate themselves from each other. When the alumnus asked to talk at the end of March 2013, she agreed to meet him in a park near E Street and Virginia Avenue at about 8 p.m.

The two spoke calmly at first, according to a written statement she attached to a UPD report that was obtained by The Hatchet. But when she prepared to leave, the alumnus “grabbed her purse and would not let go,” and when she pulled her purse back, he “grabbed her and pinned her to the railing over the highway,” according to the UPD report.

“I struggled, kicking, scratching, biting and got away. He tackled me to the ground and pinned me down. I struggled and got away again,” she wrote in the statement attached to the report.

He tackled her once more and chased her while “periodically grabbing” and “yelling non-threateningly” until she got back to campus and met up with her roommate, according to the written statement.

Although she wrote in the statement that she wanted to “start a paper trail” of his actions, she did not add his name to the report until about three weeks later. She said officials told her no disciplinary action could be taken against him unless his name was included.

The alumnus denied attacking her in the park, saying “I didn’t tackle her. I didn’t hold her there. I didn’t do any of that.”

A second No Contact order was issued in April 2013 after the incident, which also banned the female graduate student from entering the alumnus’ residence hall. The second No Contact order was to remain in place until 2016, according to an October 2013 letter to the male alumnus written by Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine that was obtained by The Hatchet.

Tina Bloom, an associate professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing at the University of Missouri who has studied partner violence, said deciding to take an incident to the police can be one of the most difficult decisions for a survivor, calling it an “almost superhuman effort.”

“People’s lives are really interwoven, and survivors have to make decisions of their safety in a context that includes all the ways that they and their partner are enmeshed and the ways the rely on each other,” Bloom said.

Sharing her story
The graduate student slowly began to share details of her relationship with her family and friends, but said she mostly tried to keep it a secret from others, who she worried would judge her. She said even if people told her not to talk to the male alumnus, it was hard to let him go.

“To lose that relationship is not the same as removing a bad element from your life. It’s like you’re losing your identity,” she said.

The graduate student’s mother said she frequently checks in with her daughter, but has mainly watched as the graduate student has tried to take control on her own. The experience “shattered” her daughter, the mother said.

“As a mom, it’s really hard to know when you need to do what – when you try to help them be strong or try to intervene,” the mother said.

A friend who lived with the graduate student during their senior year at GW said she was worried the alumnus would find out where they lived. She said she frequently told the graduate student to stop talking to him.

“I hated it. I always told her not to talk to him. I can’t even tell you how many times I thought they were done talking, and then he’d contact again. All of our friends would say he was bad news,” the friend said.

The graduate student said she struggled to feel motivated or hopeful that things would improve as contact continued.

“It’s been years, so it was a really slow chipping away I guess at my personality until I really just felt I had lost myself,” she said. They have not contacted each other since she obtained an Order of Protection from D.C. Superior Court last month.

The graduate student spent last semester away from campus, taking classes remotely and recuperating with family. The alumnus continued contacting her during that time, leading her to file a cyberstalking report to police in her hometown in December 2014, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Hatchet.

Others who are close to the graduate student, like her manager at work and her faculty mentor in her graduate program at GW, said that when she did open up to them, they were surprised. She had always seemed so put together, they said.

“Throughout this entire thing, she kept up with everything and has done it beautifully,” her faculty mentor said. “Anyone else I can think of who has gone through something like this could be completely falling apart.”

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