Student safety and well-being should be a top priority on college campuses, but a recent court decision could set a precedent that universities are not responsible for emotional distress caused by perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – which represents districts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee – ruled earlier this month that victims of sexual assault or harassment on campus cannot hold Michigan State University liable for further emotional distress from seeing the perpetrators on campus. But the ruling narrows the responsibility universities have to protect victims of assault and harassment. Universities are responsible for deflecting further emotional harm – not allowing it to persist.
The University should see the court case as a means to do better for victims of sexual assault and harassment on our campus. In the case, the victim said she suffered from panic attacks from seeing her perpetrator on campus. GW should hold itself to a higher standard than the legal precedent set by this ruling and take responsibility for the emotional distress victims suffer from seeing their assailant on campus. The University should mandate the expulsion of any student found guilty of sexual assault or harassment.
GW has come under fire before for the ways in which it has handled complaints of sexual assault and harassment. The University fell under federal investigation for alleged mismanagement of a Title IX case in 2017, in which the victim said officials did not follow through on protections from the assailant and did not remove their assailant from campus. That same year, GW’s decision not to expel a student accused of rape sparked student protests at a commencement ceremony where the student received his diploma. The University reviewed its Title IX process and eventually enacted changes, like switching to a single investigator model, but GW could take a step further and oust those found guilty of sexual assault or harassment.
Universities are only required to not show indifference to claims of sexual assault, which means they are responsible for preventing further harassment and investigating sexual misconduct complaints. But removing perpetrators from campus is not required by federal law or at the University, and incidental contact between the victim and perpetrator is not considered indifference by the institution. Still, victims who see their assailants on campus are faced with emotional distress, fear and anxiety, and GW should take responsibility for the harm caused by those incidents.
Disciplinary measures at GW are designed to prevent sexual assault from recurring and protect survivors, but expulsion would ultimately ensure those intentions are upheld. But the University does not mandate expulsion, meaning the victim may continue to deal with the undue burden of facing their assailant. While the University provides some resources for survivors, like medical care, counseling and tutoring, officials do not do enough to take responsibility for the emotional distress placed on students.
Dartmouth College mandates expulsion for students found guilty of sexual assault, but expulsion is not entirely popular among higher education institutions. Critics of mandatory expulsion have said zero-tolerance policies are difficult to enforce because they require clear definitions of assault and greater due process for the assailant. But the consequences of keeping an assailant on campus can be catastrophic to the victims, who might struggle with anxiety – just like the woman in the court case.
GW’s disciplinary measures follow the status quo. Students found guilty of sexual assault or harassment face sanctions “up to and including expulsion” – a policy that mirrors all of GW’s peer schools. For universities around the country, the recent court ruling that they are not financially liable for the victims’ emotional distress might be another reason to not abandon the norm. But administrators should be leaders on this issue and show that the University takes responsibility for victims of assault and harassment.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a junior majoring in political science and psychology, is the opinions editor.