The Title IX complaint that launched a federal investigation at GW in August calls for staff changes in the student disciplinary office and more clarity on policies governing how to report a sexual violence incident.
In an eight-page, heavily-redacted complaint filed to the education department, the student alleges that the University’s mishandling of their sexual violence case involved sex-based discrimination and retaliation for reporting an incident, violating federal Title IX guidelines.
The complainant and assailant’s names are redacted in the document — which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — along with key details about when and where incidents occurred and who was involved in those decisions.
But the complaint includes allegations that officials failed to accommodate requests for academic help, told the student they would get assistance that they never received and discriminated against the complainant in applying for a University position.
“GWU should be required to put clear policies in writing so victims know what to expect from the process and GWU should follow those,” the student wrote in the complaint. “GWU should not discourage students from reporting sexual violence.”
Responding to the complaint
The complaint was submitted to the Department of Education in October 2016. The agency’s Office of Civil Rights began an inquiry Aug. 8 to examine if federal Title IX policies were violated based on allegations made in the complaint. The investigation is ongoing and officials say they are cooperating with the probe.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the University received a notice from the Department of Education in August that an individual had filed a Title IX complaint against GW.
“The University takes any report of sexual misconduct very seriously,” Csellar said in an email. “The University is cooperating fully with the Office for Civil Rights as it conducts its inquiry into the complaint.”
Csellar cited the ongoing external review of the University’s Title IX policies as a way that officials are “continuing the dialogue initiated by our students about our processes.”
Csellar declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint. She also declined to comment on policies relating to the reporting process, accommodations for rescheduling final exams and preventing sex-based discrimination when applying for a position within the University.
In the complaint, the student says that after they were sexually assaulted by a classmate, they filed a Title IX complaint with the University, asking for the assailant to be kicked off campus.
Following the request, officials issued a no-contact order between the complainant and assailant, according to the complaint.
The student alleges that when they attempted to reschedule final exams following the assault, an administrator, whose name was redacted, told them to speak to the professor on their own. The student said in the complaint that they had difficulty making arrangements with their professors and that their grades “suffered tremendously.”
Haven, the University website that brings together on- and off-campus resources to respond to sexual abuse, advertises that officials can communicate with professors about “absences or extensions” following an incident. Title IX officials can also communicate with faculty and academic officers about seeking “incompletes,” a designation on a student’s transcript that indicates a student had a valid reason not to complete required coursework.
The student alleges in the complaint that in the semester following the assault, officials said the student would be allowed to receive a “P” to pass all of the courses from the previous semester, but officials “never followed through” in allowing the changes. The University’s final decision on the matter was redacted in the document.
In preparation for an SRR hearing to determine if the assailant was responsible, the student alleges that they were held to more strict deadlines than their assailant.
“My attacker was not held to the same standards and was allowed to submit information to the hearing board late,” the student wrote in the complaint.
The Student Code of Conduct does not provide explicit timelines for either party to bring evidence forward.
The student also alleges that they later faced sex-based discrimination when applying for a position within the University. The name of the position is redacted in the document, but the student charges that the decision to reject their application was connected to their sexual violence complaint.
The student says that an official later agreed to put the application back under consideration, but the student was never offered the position, according to the complaint.
Last month, alumna and sexual assault survivor Aniqa Raihan filed a federal Title IX complaint that faulted the SRR office and administrators for mishandling her case of sexual violence.
A catalyst for change
Title IX experts said the charges made in the complaint may push the University to re-evaluate its sexual assault policies and procedures, even though universities typically don’t face direct legal consequences if they don’t follow the ultimate recommendations from OCR.
Jody Shipper, the co-founder of Project IX and the former executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity and chief Title IX administrator at the University of Southern California, said the University might never see the complaint during the investigation process and will only get a sense of the nature of the complaint through information requests from OCR.
She said allegations of mismanagement by SRR – an office that has faced criticism from several sexual assault survivors in the past – could point to a systemic problem that the University should address.
“Raising an issue of a poorly functioning office where people either don’t have the right skills or the right resources or the right training is not always necessarily a Title IX problem, it’s an administration problem,” Shipper said.
Last week, the University announced that SRR director Gabriel Slifka would depart after being called up for active-duty service in the U.S. Army Reserves. Following the announcement, sexual assault survivors and advocates – both current students and alumni – spoke of frustrating experiences with SRR and called for changes in how the office handles sexual violence cases.
Scott Lewis, a partner with The NCHERM Group, a consulting firm for schools and campuses, said after a complaint is filed, it can often take several months for OCR to launch an investigation, a period during which OCR examines if the allegations are plausible and if they directly violate Title IX and University policies.
The most common outcome of a federal investigation is a mutual agreement between OCR and a university where recommendations for changes in the school’s Title IX office are crafted based on the findings of the probe, he said. Lewis added that it wasn’t often that complaints include references to specific officials or offices.
“It’s just sort of their narrative of what happened to them,” Lewis said, referring to the complaint. “It’s rare that in their narrative they also say ‘here’s what the school should do to make this right and this person should get fired and this department should have more staff.’”
Justine Coleman, Cayla Harris and Meredith Roaten contributed reporting.