As the top disciplinary official prepares to leave his role later this month, students and alumni say the University should use the leadership change to reform an office in the crosshairs over its handling of sexual violence cases.
Gabriel Slifka, the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, was called up for active-duty service in the U.S. Army Reserve and plans to leave GW Oct. 27, officials said last week.
During his tenure, Slifka and SRR were named in at least one lawsuit and at least one Title IX complaint for alleged mismanagement of sexual assault and harassment cases. In interviews last week, some of those students and campus advocates for survivors called on the University to use the change in leadership to re-evaluate the office’s approach to sexual violence cases at a time when Title IX procedures are under scrutiny on campus.
The University plans to hire an outside official to replace Slifka as quickly as possible during the transition period, Peter Konwerski, the dean of student affairs, said.
The office manages non-academic student conduct – like drug and alcohol use – and has partial control over Title IX violations.
Konwerski said the new director will be briefed on changes the University is considering as part of an external Title IX review announced last summer. GW also faces a federal Title IX investigation for its alleged mishandling of a complaint.
“We’re always trying to get better, so anytime we have transitions, and any time we have opportunities, we’re looking at things for the future,” he said in an interview last week.
Danielle Lico, the associate dean of students for student administrative services, who oversees SRR and several other student support offices, said Slifka worked with students to ensure all cases were treated fairly. Lico will continue to oversee the office as the new director assumes the role.
“I think what Gabe has been really good at doing is looking at the systems and processes in place to try to make things faster and smoother,” she said in an interview last week.
But some alumni and students said their experiences with Slifka left them feeling unsupported by the office, and they hoped the University would fill the position with someone who would be more empathetic toward students moving through the case process.
While the Title IX Office helps students access support and resources after incidents of sexual violence, SRR handles the disciplinary side of those cases.
Through SRR, survivors of sexual assault and harassment can receive a consultation about options for pursuing their case and available support resources. SRR also oversees hearing boards – consisting of students and sometimes faculty and administrators – that determine responsibility in a Title IX case, according to GW’s policy.
History of criticism
An alumna, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said survivors often feel a lack of compassion from officials in SRR and other offices.
The alumna alleged that her dating violence case, which was first reported in 2012, was mishandled, and that Slifka ignored multiple emails she sent and did not adequately help her access support resources.
“Overall, my feeling walking away from that situation and also walking away from the school after graduation was overwhelmingly that the school didn’t care about me,” she said. “I felt they never took my complaint seriously. I reached out to them for support, and it fell on deaf ears.”
Aniqa Raihan, a 2017 alumna who led a number of high-profile protests last spring calling for the expulsion of her assailant, said she wanted the entire process of reporting and investigating sexual violence removed from SRR’s jurisdiction and placed under the Title IX office.
“His tenure has been downright disastrous when it comes to sexual violence cases,” Raihan said in an email referring to Slifka. “He has intimidated survivors out of reporting, he has allowed survivors to be continuously harassed and he has been personally named in civil lawsuits against the University.”
Last month, Raihan filed a federal Title IX complaint against the University, where she alleged Slifka had lessened her assailant’s sanction, ignoring a recommendation from a disciplinary hearing panel to suspend him. She also faulted SRR for taking too long to respond to her emails about her case, according to the complaint.
Last academic year, officials admitted SRR was understaffed, causing some students to face delays in addressing disciplinary issues. Lico said last week that new hires had been made this fall and the office would soon be fully staffed.
Alexa Grasfield, the co-president of SASA, said GW should fill Slifka’s position with someone who has trauma-informed training to ensure they know how to interact with survivors who experienced unwanted sexual encounters. She added that new leadership should improve communication with survivors after several complained about infrequent updates and unanswered emails.
“I hope the University can tangibly see how SRR runs without a person who actively makes students feel uncomfortable and unsafe within the University system, and will recognize the negative impacts Slifka’s employment had on many students,” Grasfield said in an email.
Katie Costello, a leader for GW Students for Recovery – a group designed to support those coping with mental illness and drug addiction – said hiring specialists in social work to run the office would make officials more qualified to handle Title IX and drug addiction cases.
“A little bit more warmth in this University would do it some good I think because right now it’s my way or the highway, and there’s no real middle ground there,” she said.
While hiring experienced external leaders should not disrupt office procedures, experts said a new director could bring different perspectives to improve case processes in the office.
Dan Schorr, the managing director at Kroll Associates, a corporate investigations and risk consulting firm and the co-leader of its sexual misconduct and Title IX investigations practice, said students would benefit from having officials who specialize in Title IX cases because they will know how to search for evidence and evaluate accusations.
“In a university setting, it’s not inappropriate if someone who is investigating sexual assault complaints also investigates other types of matters, as long as they have the proper skills and the resources – including time – to fully and promptly investigate these complaints,” he said.
Cayla Harris, Kathryn Sheehan, Rohan Kandeshwarath, Allison Kwon and Valerie Yurk contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the October 23, 2017 issue of the Hatchet.