When I started my freshman year last fall, I felt confident in GW’s ability to effectively handle cases of sexual assault. The University hadn’t been under federal Title IX investigation since 2011, and the school introduced a mandatory training program for freshmen in the fall of 2015 to educate students about sexual assault prevention and response. It seemed like GW had learned from its past mistakes and was committed to creating a more transparent environment.
Unfortunately, this year’s freshmen probably don’t feel the same sense of security with the Title IX office. Last month, GW went under federal investigation by the Department of Education for possible violations of federal law over its handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Additionally, there have been incidents in the past year that have called the University’s sexual violence case process into question, like alumna Aniqa Raihan’s campaign to expel her assailant last spring after his punishment for sexual violence was less than the minimum suggested sanction. The investigation announcement also came after employee departures left Rory Muhammad, the Title IX coordinator, as the only full-time, permanent staff member in the Title IX office for the entire spring semester and part of the summer. And just last week, some resident advisors came forward to say they felt ill-equipped to help sexual assault survivors after their brief half-hour training session with Title IX officials. At both the RA training and the mandatory freshmen training program this year, the federal investigation was not mentioned.
There have been incidents in the past year that have called the University’s sexual violence case process into question.
There are likely a good number of freshmen who aren’t aware that GW is under federal investigation, and even fewer who know the background concerning Raihan or the understaffing of the Title IX office before it expanded this summer. But regardless of how much the incoming class knows, Title IX officials running the mandatory sexual assault education program should have informed freshmen of the investigation during training and educated them on what it means for the University.
The training program consists of an online training module that freshmen are required to complete during the summer, and it is followed by in-person training sessions that take place at the beginning of the school year. Title IX instructors don’t make significant changes to the program from year to year, University spokesman Tim Pierce said in an email last week. “The overall message remains the same, but there may be a change to a slide in a powerpoint here and there,” Pierce said. He also confirmed that students were not told about the inquiry during their training last month. Under other circumstances, it would seem acceptable for the program’s content to mirror the two previous years, but only changing a slide here and there doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on at GW.
The point of the training program is to educate freshmen about prevention of – and response to – campus sexual assault. So there could be a few silver linings to the federal investigation, especially if Title IX officials chose to use it as an opportunity to educate students. Although freshmen were not told about the investigation during training, incoming first-year students did receive an email from the University announcing the investigation, Pierce said.
If I were a freshman this year, I would feel much better if the Title IX officials running my training session were upfront with me about the federal investigation.
The fact that freshmen have been notified about the investigation doesn’t mean that officials in the Title IX office should have ignored the opportunity to explain it in greater detail. Some freshmen may have heard about schools under federal investigation, but many probably don’t know exactly what that entails. During the investigation, federal employees collect documents from the Title IX office and visit campus to interview students and officials. These new students and potential interviewees deserve for their Title IX instructors to be open with them about what is happening at their school right now.
Specifically, the Title IX office should have used the training sessions to explain what a federal investigation typically consists of and how it will affect life at GW. That last discussion point would have even allowed instructors to talk about the potential benefits of the investigation and aspects of campus life they hope to change as a result. They could have referenced the improvements to GW’s sexual assault case policy that came as a result of the 2011 investigation, and informed them of the current review of Title IX procedures by outside legal experts. Instructors should’ve been honest about the situation and expressed to freshmen that going through the inquiry could force changes to make GW a safer place that’s better equipped to address cases of sexual assault.
There seems to be a societal tendency to avoid talking about the federal investigation because students may perceive it as a point of failure, even though the Department of Education has not confirmed that GW has made any mistakes yet. But officials need to realize that not addressing it in the training program is ridding the Title IX office of transparency, an asset that too many colleges lack when informing students about the state of sexual assault instances on their campuses. If I were a freshman this year, I would feel much better if the Title IX officials running my training session were upfront with me about the federal investigation. Officials should keep that in mind for future training sessions this year. Addressing this topic head-on sends a message to students that GW isn’t perfect, but is trying to be open about what is happening and learn what it needs to do better.
Natalie Prieb, a sophomore majoring in english and creative writing, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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