A portrait of dating violence on campus: Survivor considers filing federal complaint, says GW mishandled her case

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Hatchet Photographer

The University held a judicial hearing in John Quincy Adams House for the two students in May 2013.

This is part three of a three-part series chronicling an allegedly 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 one and two were published by The Hatchet in the past two weeks.

A graduate student is considering filing a complaint that would launch a federal investigation into how GW supports survivors of sexual violence, after she said University officials ignored her emails and failed to guarantee her access to resources over four years.

The Title IX complaint is one of the ways students across the country have said they can hold their schools publicly accountable and ensure a safer environment for sexual violence survivors. The graduate student is working with a lawyer to review the case, which she would file in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

It would be the second Title IX complaint filed against GW in the last four years, and would put the University on a list of more than 100 schools nationwide under investigation for inadequate responses to sexual violence reports.

The female graduate student began dating a male alumnus in the spring of 2011 while they were both undergraduates. Over the course of their relationship, she reported multiple incidents to the University Police Department, including that he allegedly stalked, harassed and attacked her. She said officials should have recognized those incidents as red flags for dating violence because the man was her romantic partner.

She said instead of giving her lists of resources, officials should have known to direct her to the University’s sexual violence prevention office. She says they never did, which is the main reason why she claims GW mishandled her case.

“I just hope they understand the extent of the damage that has been caused to me as a student and how much this has negatively shaped my student experience,” said the graduate student, who was granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “I would love to see them own up to it, and I would love to see the school hold them accountable.”

She also said officials didn’t keep her in the loop about details of her case and that throughout the process they failed to recognize the severity of her situation — potentially putting her and the rest of campus at risk, she said.

The alumnus spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the story.

This is the final story in a three-part series giving a close look at dating violence on campus – including the inner-workings of a relationship, the University Counseling Center’s resources for survivors and GW’s judicial process.

Student complains of one-size-fits-all approach
The graduate student said officials would have paid more attention to her if she had reported her case as sexual assault, a topic that has been at the forefront of conversations on campuses across the country this year. But she said it was GW’s responsibility to recognize that she needed help.

Experts also said that because dating violence can so often encompass sexual assault, survivors must all be guided to the same resources.

“We know sexual assaults are often perpetrated by an intimate or ex-intimate partner. But we just haven’t in colleges and universities quite wrapped our heads around the dynamic and difficulty of responding to survivors,” said Tina Bloom, an associate professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing at the University of Missouri who has studied partner violence.

Over the course of her undergraduate and graduate studies at GW, the female student said officials mishandled her case, taking days to respond to her emails and declining to give her updates – a pattern that she said showed their focus on managing the situation rather than offering her support. In emails obtained by The Hatchet, Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities Gabriel Slifka would often take days or even up to a month to respond to emails, and some were never addressed.

For example, in November 2014, the graduate student emailed Slifka and said she had been continuously harassed by the alumnus over the previous 18 months, “despite my clear message I do not wish to have anything to do with him,” according to a copy of the email. He took three weeks to respond to that message after repeated calls from the graduate student and her mother.

She said she holds Slifka and Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine responsible for improperly handling her case over the past several years.

The graduate student called GW’s approach one-size-fits-all, saying the system was more focused on protecting the alleged perpetrator than on her needs or rights as a survivor.

“Everything in my history of reporting with the school has always been centered around [the alumnus] and nothing has been centered around me as a victim, or what I’ve been through or what supports we can connect her with or what resources [do I] need,” she said.

She said she had originally thought the alumnus could not get his degree until 2016, a detail she saw in a contract between the alumnus and GW signed by Levine, which she obtained through her lawyer. But she later saw his name on a GW alumni website. A University spokeswoman confirmed for the The Hatchet that he had received his degree in 2013.

She said that change would be a centerpiece of her complaint. In the letter, the alumnus agreed not to contact her until 2016 – but he contacted her as recently as February 2015, according to a document she filed to obtain an order of protection from the city last month.

This past December, she was told that all agreements between GW and the alumnus were no longer in place, but she could not be given more information.

Several experts said Title IX emphasizes including survivors in the judicial process, including any actions a school takes against an alleged perpetrator after a hearing. Keeping any details of the case from the graduate student could be in violation of her Title IX rights, they said.

Another layer of complexity
But the case’s complicated judicial process became even more complex when the male alumnus suffered a concussion several days before the University scheduled a judicial hearing in May 2013.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to comment on the hearing. Csellar said officials cannot confirm or provide information about the students.

“We cannot comment on the specifics of an individual student’s case because of privacy laws,” Csellar said. “Additionally, we are particularly sensitive about disclosing information that may increase the potential risk of harm to a complainant of dating violence.”

The alumnus said he considered suing the University for holding the hearing because he was not healthy enough to participate. He said he had been a victim of the “Knockout Game,” in which groups pick random strangers and try to beat them until they are unconscious.

He suffered an orbital fracture, double vision, eye trauma and a neck injury, according to a medical note that was obtained by The Hatchet. He said the concussion was so severe that he purchased special sunglasses and could not attend University-wide Commencement on the National Mall because it was several days after the incident.

At the hearing, where he said officials accused him of assaulting her, he said he could not function. The alumnus did not speak during the hearing because of his injuries, and said he continues to have concussion symptoms and was barely able to read for about a year following the incident.

“I was actually incapacitated. I fell asleep and I had to lean on the chair and use the chair pillow that would have normally been under me as a neck pillow,” he said. “I had a concussion and I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. My ears were still ringing.”

Mirroring a broader trend
Experts say schools nationwide have struggled to handle their legal responsibilities while supporting students wading through the reporting process.

In August 2011, a GW student filed a Title IX complaint against the University for “failing to respond in an equitable manner to her complaint that she was sexually assaulted by another undergraduate student,” according to a copy of the complaint from the Department of Education.

The University agreed to update its policies to respond to the complaint without admitting that it was ever in violation of Title IX. Included in the resolution was a set of 15 steps with specific deadlines that officials had to follow, like reviewing the responsibilities of the Title IX coordinator and increasing training and education.

A University spokeswoman said GW’s policy complies with the agreement and it “periodically reviews its policies” to make sure they meet legal requirements.

The 2011 Title IX complaint also came in the middle of two major changes to the University’s structure for handling complaints. In April 2011, officials announced that the judicial office would be split the following fall to separate more serious cases from minor incidents. In 2013, officials revamped the sexual assault policies and removed the time constraints for formally filing a sexual harassment or assault complaint.

Levine, Slifka and the Office of General Counsel declined several separate interview requests.

‘A lack of understanding of the dynamics of dating violence’
She first reported email harassment to UPD in 2012 after the alumnus reportedly threatened to kill her ex-boyfriend. She was still in contact with the alumnus at the time – a point that she said shows how complex cases of dating violence can be. Throughout her undergraduate years, and even after two No Contact orders were put in place, she said she was caught between advocating for her rights with GW and still caring about the alumnus’ wellbeing.

She filed another report with UPD in March 2013 after the alumnus allegedly attacked her in a park near E Street and Virginia Avenue. He reportedly “grabbed her and pinned her to the railing over the highway,” according to a UPD report that was obtained by The Hatchet. The alumnus denied ever attacking her.

After the report, Slifka called her into his office and asked her what an appropriate punishment would be for the alumnus – who was a senior at the time. She said the conversation put her in an uncomfortable situation and was an example of officials putting his disciplinary standing over her needs.

“It showed a lack of understanding of the dynamics of dating violence,” she said. “Even though I was his victim, I was also his biggest defendant in many situations. And clearly I don’t know what’s appropriate treatment based on what I’ve put up with in the past.”

Katie Eichele, the director of the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education at the University of Minnesota, said schools nationwide have scrambled to keep up with the focus on campus sexual violence. But she said even though it is common practice for investigators to ask the input of the survivor, they should not fully rely on their opinion.

“To rely on someone in trauma to determine the outcome for their attacker is kind of a scapegoat for institutions,” Eichele said. “You can certainly ask, but the reality is you should already know what the scope of sanctions should represent and you should stick to it.”

Csellar said in disciplinary cases, it is common for officials to ask the person who reported the incident about how the behavior impacted them. Csellar said officials will often use that information as one factor when deciding the punishment.

The graduate student said another barrier to healing came each time she decided to file a report because she had to file two separate reports: one for GW’s judicial office and one for UPD.

“That’s so time consuming and there’s no one who seemed to care that it is my time,” she said. “Every time I decided to report, that was something I had to take into consideration – do I even have time to do all this?”

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