Alumna sues University, claims GW created ‘hostile culture’ for sexual assault survivors

Media Credit: Connor Witschonke | Hatchet Photographer

Aniqa Raihan, a sexual assault survivor who graduated last academic year, announced she filed a lawsuit against the University at a press conference Friday.

An alumna’s lawsuit against GW for allegedly mishandling her sexual violence case could lead to Title IX policy changes, experts said.

The 15-page lawsuit alleges the University didn’t communicate with the alumna when she asked for updates about her sexual violence case and created a “hostile culture” for survivors by failing to comply with disciplinary standards. Title IX and law experts said the University may re-evaluate its Title IX policies as a result of the complaint – leading to an environment where more students feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexual misconduct to officials.

Aniqa Raihan, a sexual assault survivor who graduated last academic year, announced she filed a lawsuit against the University at a press conference Friday. Raihan said at the conference that because the University gave her alleged assailant a lesser penalty than recommended by the student code of conduct, she didn’t feel like she had adequate support on campus.

“I assumed that GW’s community and institutions and prestige would protect me,” she said at the press conference.

Raihan declined to comment, and the alleged assailant, who was identified in the lawsuit as alumnus Mark Favorito, did not return multiple requests for comment.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the University had not been served with the complaint as of Friday, but the University is committed to supporting survivors and will defend itself in court. She declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

“As we have stated previously in response to prior concerns Ms. Raihan has raised in the media, the University respectfully disagrees with her characterization of the administrative process and outcome in this situation,” Csellar said in an email.

Addressing a ‘hostile culture’
In the lawsuit, Raihan claims the University created a “sexually hostile culture” through its policies, failure to provide an equitable resolution to her sexual violence case and that administrators neglected to uphold Title IX procedures. She alleges that because GW did not expel her assailant and declined to issue a no-contact order to him, she was continually at risk of sexual harassment.

“Throughout the entirety of the investigation and adjudication process, GW did not implement any interim safety measures to protect Plaintiff from Favorito on campus,” the complaint reads.

Raihan alleges in the complaint that the University created a “hostile culture” by failing to issue appropriate punishments for students who committed acts of sexual misconduct and interfering with female students’ access to Title IX resources. She also alleges the University did not report incidents of sexual misconduct to the appropriate offices and failed to comply with disciplinary procedures outlined in the student code of conduct.

The lawsuit claims that the University also did not investigate three additional reports of alleged sexual misconduct involving her assailant.

Last spring, Raihan launched a petition calling on the University to expel her alleged assailant after officials gave him a lesser punishment than recommended in the student code of conduct. The petition spurred a series of protests, including an email campaign calling for the University to terminate her assailant’s job at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center.

She also led a rally during an admitted students day last year, during which she delivered the petition to administrators in Rice Hall.

At the second commencement ceremony for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences last spring, Raihan and two other students held a banner reading “GW Protects Rapists” as her alleged assailant walked across the stage.

Inadequate institutional support
Raihan claims that GW’s “deliberate indifference” toward her sexual violence case prevented her access to educational opportunities and campus events because she did not feel comfortable going to class or the gym, she said at the press conference Friday.

The complaint alleges that Gabriel Slifka, the former director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, treated her with “callous disregard” by failing to investigate and address sexual harassment she had experienced.

Slifka departed from his role in SRR last fall and received criticism from multiple students and alumni about the office’s handling of cases related to sexual violence.

Raihan claims that GW negligently retained Slifka even after knowing that he did not investigate and properly address her sexual violence case.

“GW failed to take adequate measures to ensure that Mr. Slifka followed written University procedures and ensure Mr. Slifka did not aggravate the harm suffered by sexual harassment victims,” the complaint states.

Slifka did not respond to a request for comment.

A legal push
Raihan asks for financial compensation – an amount to be determined through trial – for emotional pain and suffering, “deprivation of equal access” to opportunities at GW and loss of “enjoyment of life” as a result of being sexually harassed.

Alex Zalkin, the attorney representing Raihan from Zalkin Law Firm, P.C., said he initially met with Raihan last fall to discuss filing the lawsuit, and his team is “hopeful and optimistic” about the case’s outcome.

“It’s a really amazing thing that Aniqa did today because it really drives the conversation and it also lets other universities know that they can’t ignore survivors,” Zalkin said in an interview Friday after the press conference. “When survivors do this and they sue their universities, it’s a very strong message to them.”

Title IX experts said the lawsuit is likely to settle because the complaint will draw adverse attention to the University.

Frank LoMonte, a senior legal fellow at Student Press Law Center, said the case will likely settle because it would be damaging to the University to experience a grueling public trial where its “shortcomings would be aired.” He added that the case will likely end in a negotiated solution giving Raihan some money in damages and attorney fees – but the outcome would focus on pushing the University to change its policies.

“Nobody gets rich doing this and nobody brings this to get rich,” LoMonte said. “You bring them to raise awareness and to make change.”

Dan Schorr, the managing director at Kroll Associates, a corporate investigations and risk consulting firm, said with the Title IX complaint Raihan filed against GW in the fall, the Office of Civil Rights might take the facts from this lawsuit into account when determining whether or not to initiate another federal investigation.

The University fell under federal Title IX investigation in August in response to a complaint in which a student alleges sex-based discrimination and retaliation for reporting an incident of sexual misconduct. Raihan also filed a federal complaint in September alleging that the University mishandled her sexual violence case.

The University brought in outside experts to review its Title IX procedures last year, but officials have said the review was unrelated to the federal investigation.

Schorr said Raihan’s complaint could encourage more students to feel comfortable reporting their experiences with sexual violence to the University.

“When more people step forward, that emboldens people to also discuss what happened to them,” he said.

Brooke Migdon and Lizzie Stricklin contributed reporting.

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