Staff Editorial: A Title IX investigation could benefit GW

Once again, GW has joined the national conversation surrounding sexual violence on college campuses. But this time, the University isn’t being recognized for signing on to the “It’s On Us” campaign or committing to mandatory prevention training. Instead, an alumna is suing GW for allegedly violating Title IX.

Over the past few years, GW has publicly voiced an admirable commitment to preventing sexual violence. But many of the University’s initiatives that have received publicity focus completely on prevention, and prevention is only one element of dealing with sexual violence on college campuses.

This lawsuit could very well trigger a Title IX investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights – and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

When faced with a high-profile complaint like this, some schools may choose to hire a third-party firm to conduct a review of their practices. But GW should avoid that, given that an outside review would likely be a completely closed-door process. Instead, if GW is investigated by the Department of Education, officials should welcome the investigation and proceed as transparently as possible.

According to the complaint, GW did not refer an alumna named Ricca Prasad to the Title IX office after she repeatedly reported incidents of sexual harassment and dating violence to the University Police Department and the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities over the course of several years. The complaint also alleges that GW wrongfully retained the director of Student Rights and Responsibilities, Gabriel Slifka, and that he harmed Prasad by mishandling her case.

GW was investigated for a Title IX violation in 2011, after a student filed a formal complaint with the Department of Education. In order for that to happen again, Prasad would need to file her own formal Title IX complaint. Or, the Department of Education could choose on its own to conduct an investigation into GW’s procedures and policies surrounding discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence.

There would be a number of benefits to an examination by the Department of Education. Given GW’s history with vehement student advocacy for sexual assault prevention and support for survivors, we have no doubt that a formal Title IX investigation would prompt student activism on campus. Student groups would have more leverage when pressing the University for changes to the reporting system, and given the negative press that comes with a federal investigation, GW would have plenty of incentive to listen.

Plus, a successful investigation may encourage other survivors to come forward. Sexual assault and dating violence aren’t talked about enough. Often, the reporting process for survivors is so taxing and frustrating that they keep their struggles private, or don’t report at all. But armed with the knowledge that they aren’t alone in their difficulties dealing with the school, they may have more reason to come forward.

An investigation by the Department of Education isn’t the only option, and may not even happen. The University could also conduct its own internal investigation, but we cannot trust it to change as a result, or even tell us what they found. And hiring a third party to conduct an investigation wouldn’t necessarily hurt, but GW has done that in the past – both for the admissions office and the University Police Department. When those concluded, the University was silent, and it’s difficult to gauge what change, if any, came about as a result.

Either way, the weight of an investigation by the Department of Education could force the University into action. For example, after the complaint in 2011, GW changed its policies and reassessed the Title IX coordinator’s responsibilities.

This time, GW should make sure to improve coordination between departments like the Title IX office and Student Rights and Responsibilities so that the lack of communication alleged in Prasad’s case doesn’t hurt more survivors.

The University also needs to do a better job publicizing the Title IX office and all of the resources it offers survivors, rather than expecting that they find it on their own. (That fact was highly publicized when GW released its climate survey last winter, but we haven’t seen the lasting changes we would like.) GW could also use the investigation to provide more insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes, and to tell us what actually goes on during the reporting process.

Of course, on its own, a Title IX investigation wouldn’t fix all of the problems survivors encounter when reporting sexual violence. These investigations can take years and aren’t foolproof. More than 130 schools nationwide are also being investigated, meaning there is a huge burden on one government office. Ultimately, there are too many bureaucratic issues with the reporting process for one federal investigation to solve all of them.

A federal Title IX investigation could be the catalyst for more resources for survivors and for real changes to the reporting process. The outside pressure would likely force the University to make real, structural changes that actually help survivors – unlike the neatly packaged commitments to preventing sexual assault that are easy to promote.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with managing director Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, sports editor Nora Princiotti, senior design assistant Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer.

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