A lawsuit filed earlier this month alleges the University and senior management failed to protect multiple student employees from a “sexual predator” in the workplace.
In a 29-page complaint filed May 10 in the D.C. Superior Court, five anonymous women claim GW “turned a blind eye to the hostile, dangerous work environment” at an institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs. They claim the University and a supervisor at the Institute for International Economic Policy did not take action against a male employee who raped or sexually harassed at least 11 women – and forced the plaintiffs to either cut back on hours and work from home or continue to work in close quarters with their assailant.
The plaintiffs ask for more than $30 million in damages and demand the University implement discrimination and sexual harassment training at the institute, fire the alleged assailant and promote clear resources to employees about how to file a sexual misconduct complaint.
The suit is one of at least five legal challenges – including lawsuits and federal complaints – filed against the University for possible Title IX violations this academic year.
“GW engaged in a pattern and practice of behavior designed to discourage and dissuade students and parents of students who had been sexually assaulted from seeking prosecution and protection,” the lawsuit states.
Multiple alleged violations
The suit names a student employee who works at the institute as the alleged assailant. The women, identified as Jane Does 1 through 5 in the suit, claim the alleged assailant continuously asked coworkers on dates, used “demeaning” language to refer to female coworkers and raped three of the women when they were intoxicated.
“These women were not only sexually assaulted by this monster – they were mentally assaulted by his taunts, threats and ridicule,” the lawsuit states. “The extreme distress, humiliation, embarrassment and feeling of powerlessness the plaintiffs have experienced in the face of such an injustice is not something that heals well with time.”
The alleged assailant did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Hatchet is not naming the alleged assailant because he is not a defendant in the case and has not been charged.
The lawsuit is the latest in a slew of Title IX lawsuits this academic year, including a complaint filed last month alleging GW mishandled an alumna’s sexual violence case and repeatedly put her at risk of further sexual harassment by refusing to expel her assailant and allowing him to keep his on-campus job.
The University is also currently under federal Title IX investigation for allegedly mishandling another sexual violence case involving sex-based discrimination and retaliation for reporting an incident.
The lawsuit comes at the same time as an overhaul of the University’s sexual harassment policy, which was finalized at a Board of Trustees meeting Friday. The updates change the sexual misconduct investigation process from including a six-person faculty- and student-led hearing board to a single investigator model and require all faculty to be mandatory reporters.
Brendan Klaproth, the lawyer representing the five women, did not return multiple requests for comment.
Allegations of sexual misconduct
The lawsuit alleges the University violated the D.C. Human Rights Act by forcing some of the women to resign or cut back on their hours to avoid interacting with the alleged assailant instead of firing him. The complaint states GW acted “negligently” by declining to implement basic anti-harassment training and supervision for employees and violated various federal Title IX policies by failing to respond appropriately to plaintiffs’ complaints.
The women claim that both the alleged assailant and the women’s supervisor, Kyle Renner, the operations manager at IIEP, created a culture of “pervasive and regular” sexual hostility in the workplace.
In the complaint, Jane Doe 1 states the alleged assailant repeatedly asked her to come alone to his apartment and openly discussed his “sexual exploits” around the office, including a public ranking of his sexual encounters with female coworkers. The suit claims Jane Doe 1 brought her concerns to Renner and the Title IX office, and while a Title IX investigator reached out to her, the office pursued no further action – a “direct violation of GW’s obligation to perform independent investigations of sexual assault and misconduct regarding students.”
Jane Doe 2 said in the complaint that the assailant sexually assaulted her in his apartment when she was a freshman, despite telling him repeatedly she didn’t want to “do anything sexual.” She said she returned to the job the next year because she needed money but frequently asked coworkers to walk her to work to avoid seeing him alone.
Jane Doe 4 said in the complaint the assailant often used “demeaning” tactics – like intentionally calling her coworkers by the wrong name – and referred to new female staffers as his “new office crush.” She said he bought her and other underage staff members drinks when the staff went to a nightclub, took her back to his apartment while she was “grossly intoxicated” and raped her. She added that the assailant then bragged about his encounter with her publicly to IIEP coworkers.
Jane Doe 5 alleges the assailant forced her into an Uber with him after a party and began to assault her during the ride. She said he “aggressively raped” her at his apartment, and she physically tried to stop him, but couldn’t because she was intoxicated and was falling “in and out of consciousness.”
Jane Doe 3, the head of the digital communications and social media team, said in the lawsuit that she was repeatedly told about the alleged assailant’s unwanted advances on other office employees. She said in the lawsuit she filed at least four formal complaints with supervisors about the alleged assailant’s behavior, but officials failed to follow up on the complaints, fire him or launch a Title IX investigation.
A ‘deliberate indifference’ to student concerns
The suit claims GW did not take any “discernible action” to remove the alleged assailant from his position after being made aware of alleged incidents. Jane Doe 2 states in the suit that the Student Rights and Responsibilities office said her complaint fell into a “gray area” and that they “cannot write policy for every possible complaint that we could come across.”
“Not only has GW demonstrated a deliberate indifference to plaintiffs’ complaints of harassment, it has provided safe harbor for the assailant,” the suit states.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing a University policy not to comment on pending litigation – but she said GW will respond “as appropriate.”
“The George Washington University takes issues of sexual misconduct, sexual violence and its obligations under Title IX very seriously,” Csellar said in an email. “The University is committed to fully supporting any survivors and providing an equitable process for those who are accused.”
The suit states that multiple staff members complained to Renner about the assailant’s “inappropriate” actions over the past year, but the women allege Renner attempted to silence them by asking them to work from home or responding to their complaints with, “sometimes you need to work with people you don’t necessarily get along with.”
“Renner was part of the problem and his behavior is indicative of the systematic failures of GW to recognize and respond to complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace,” the suit reads.
Renner said in an email the lawsuit is “inaccurate in a number of respects” and “mischaracterizes” his actions. He declined to comment further on the complaint.