Short-staffed Title IX office and flawed conduct code harms students

From short-staffing in the Title IX office to holes in the code of student conduct, GW’s support system for survivors of sexual assault and violence is cause for concern.

Currently, Title IX coordinator Rory Muhammad is the only full time permanent staff member in the Title IX office. Carrie Ross, the former assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response, resigned in January and the position, which oversees prevention education training, has been vacant since then. GW is looking to fill this position and is also expanding the office by adding two new positions – a Title IX investigator, who investigates cases, and a paralegal, who communicates with the people involved in a case.

We’re sure GW is working on hiring these individuals, and we understand that hiring can be a complicated process, especially for an office that deals with cases as sensitive as sexual assault and violence. But the fact that there’s only been one full-time staff member since January gives off the impression that filling these positions isn’t a priority for GW.

These vacancies also point to bigger issues for students. They show a lack of concern and disregard for survivors of sexual assault and violence. It’s crucial that the Title IX office be able to provide survivors with all the resources and support they need, but the office’s current state may deter students from reporting incidents and reaching out to the Title IX office. The high turnover rate is unfair to students who need support but are stuck with a smaller Title IX office.

It’s unrealistic to expect one person to take on all of the responsibilities of the Title IX office.

The two new positions – Title IX investigator and paralegal – are vital to the functioning of the office. Since these positions have never been in place at GW, one person in the Title IX office has been the point of contact for everything since January. It’s unrealistic to expect one person to take on all of the responsibilities of the Title IX office. The absence of these crucial roles raises questions about the office’s effectiveness in dealing with Title IX issues both in the past and present.

GW peer schools like Georgetown, Tufts and Northeastern universities have investigators as part of their Title IX offices, making it surprising that GW has taken this long to consider adding these positions. A fully staffed Title IX office provides more resources for students. When the student body can see how tangible these resources are, it encourages more people to come forward with their complaints.

High turnover and difficulty hiring replacements isn’t specific to the Title IX office though – it’s part of a larger GW trend. In the last three years, we’ve had three different people serve as the victim services coordinator – the staff member in UPD who supports survivors as they go through the reporting process – and we currently have an interim coordinator. It also took eight months to hire a new vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement. This is a problem that will have heavy consequences as GW tries to expand the office. Widespread turnover can deter people from applying to open positions, especially if prospective applicants believe the turnover stems from issues within the workplace culture. As the University continues their search, officials should be more transparent by giving us updates on how the hiring process is going and how they can help students who may want to seek help from the Title IX office.

Unfortunately, when it comes to how GW supports survivors and handles sexual assault cases, the problems don’t stop at turnover in the Title IX office. The University’s code of student conduct, which was not created by the Title IX office, doesn’t state whether a conviction for sexual violence can impact a student’s employment with the University. Additionally, the employee handbook doesn’t specifically state whether an employee can be terminated for a case of sexual violence outside the workplace.

At the very least, the University should lay out potential reasons for why someone may get a lower sentence than recommended.

This language is troubling, and likely what contributed to the continued employment of a student manager at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center after he was disciplined for sexual violence. It’s refreshing to see that the University released a statement last week providing information on how they review sexual misconduct cases and the results of cases in the past two years, but it still doesn’t address this major issue. Although the University’s acknowledgement of student concerns about these issues and willingness to make changes is encouraging, it needs to be translated into concrete actions. The University should show their commitment to issues of sexual misconduct and violence by altering the language of their code and employee handbook to be like Florida State University’s code, which states that if a student is found guilty of of sexual misconduct, the punishment can include termination from University employment.

The HelWell employee in that case only received a deferred suspension, instead of the recommended minimum sanction of suspension. Although we weren’t in the hearing and don’t have all sides of the story, if a punishment is recommended in the code for a certain violation, then it should be followed. At the very least, the University should lay out potential reasons for why someone may get a lower sentence than recommended, which they failed to do in their statement.

It will always be difficult for universities to handle sexual assault cases because of how sensitive the issue is for all parties involved. But with a Title IX office with only one full-time staff member and a problematic code of conduct, GW is communicating to its student body that helping sexual assault survivors is not a high priority.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen, copy editor Melissa Schapiro, assistant design editor Anna Skillings and Hatchet columnist Shwetha Srinivasan.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.