One of GW’s main points of contact for sexual assault survivors stepped down this summer – a departure officials did not publicly announce.
Suzanne Combs, the victims’ services coordinator, left GW over the summer, and officials have not yet found a replacement to fill that position. Combs’ role, which grew and changed over the years as the University increasingly concentrated on sexual assault prevention and education while the topic came into focus at institutions across the country.
Her departure means GW is left without an official who worked closely with students, bridged the University Police Department and Title IX Office and served during a time of major transition in GW’s sexual assault response. She had been at GW since at least March of 2009, when she was commissioned as a special police officer, before transitioning to victims’ services coordinator in the spring of 2013.
Combs met with students, faculty and staff who came forward about sexual assault, guiding them through the process of reporting an assault and serving as their advocate in court. She also served on the University’s Sexual Assault Response Consultative team, a group of staff trained specifically to respond to sexual violence.
And at a time when students have increasingly called for more sexual assault prevention education, Combs led sessions for student organizations and Greek chapters.
She did not return a request for comment.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to comment on exactly when Combs left to pursue another job opportunity or why the University did not publicly announce her departure.
“The University is committed to fully supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and other victims of criminal activity,” Csellar said in an email.
A group of students, faculty and administrators are currently on a search committee for a new victims’ services coordinator, and met with candidates in September and October. Csellar declined to comment on the hiring timeline for a replacement.
Csellar said UPD and staff in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion have been working with survivors since Combs’ departure, including survivors who had been regularly meeting with her before she left.
A symbol of stability
As sexual assault on college campuses has dominated conversation over the last several years, Combs’ presence at GW stayed consistent. When Tara Pereira, the deputy Title IX coordinator who had spent 14 years at GW, stepped down at the end of 2013, Combs’ role expanded dramatically.
Combs became the main person meeting with sexual assault survivors and educating students about the resources that are available to them at GW. Former Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed, who has since left the University, stepped in at the time to serve as the interim Title IX coordinator, ensuring GW was in line with federal anti-discrimination standards on top of increasing faculty diversity and helping to lead a task force on college access.
It took 11 months for officials to hire a permanent Title IX coordinator, who has since taken on more of the high-level responsibilities in the office that used to fall under Reed. Officials also added an assistant director of sexual assault prevention and response last spring.
Last month, a former student filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University for mishandling her allegations of sexual harassment. The Department of Education investigated GW in 2011 for its handling of sexual assault, which led to a revamp of University policies, including a reassessment of the Title IX coordinator’s role.
Experts said turnover and inconsistency in the leadership who deal with campus survivors’ trauma can negatively impact the University’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to reports of sexual violence.
Saundra Schuster, a lawyer for the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, said it’s imperative for institutions to have a resource that bridges the gap between students, campus police and administrators who handle reports of sexual assault.
“Unless you have someone that has knowledge about neurobiology of sexual trauma, understands trauma-informed investigating, you’re not likely going to be serving individuals who have been subjected to or traumatized by a sexual experience,” Schuster said.
Rob Hradsky, the dean of students and assistant vice president of campus life at American University, said the more resources and reporting options students are offered across University offices, the more likely they are to seek help.
“Having that role on campus is critical because it provides a confidential resource for students to really understand their options, to be validated for their feelings and their experiences,” he said. “It serves an important role for education of students, faculty and staff. I think that’s a critical role on campus, and one that I can’t imagine doing without.”
Connecting with students to raise awareness
Last year the University saw a 50 percent increase in sexual abuse reports compared to any other semester since 2010, which at the time Combs attributed to more awareness about the issue on campus.
Student leaders said Combs was a visible face in the community and was always committed to helping students prevent sexual violence. In a high-profile meeting last fall, Combs met with Greek leaders and top officials in UPD to discuss sexual assault prevention after a sexual assault was reported in a Greek townhouse. That meeting also followed former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s controversial remarks about the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault.
Laura Zillman, the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault who is on the search committee for a new coordinator, said Combs often talked with students about how to report and prevent sexual assault. She said Combs shared a flowchart about reporting sexual assault at GW to students during a SASA training last spring.
“That’s something that’s always stuck with people,” Zillman said.
Zillman added that Combs was always one of the first people SASA members thought of when seeking help for sexual assault survivors because she “knew basically everything there was to know.”
Maya Weinstein, a senior and sexual assault survivor, said she worked “very closely” with Combs and always appreciated how she made an extra effort to support students.
“In the absence of a Title IX coordinator and while all of those shenanigans were going down, Suz really filled those roles,” Weinstein said. “She was a really fantastic advocate. I hope that the new coordinator will take on a similar role.”
Kiara Bhagwanjee contributed reporting.