GW must do more to protect survivors

For years, survivors of sexual abuse have been saying loud and clear that GW needs to step up its game. Last week, calls got even louder with protesters marching past the site of Commencement holding posters plastered with phrases like “When Will They Protect Me?”

Right now, survivors are not safe at GW. Plain and simple. Even when they are not physically in danger, survivors of sexual abuse still suffer the repeated indignity of feeling ignored or seeing perpetrators escape punishment. Stories shared through social media paint a damning picture of a University that responds to the needs of survivors with a blind eye and a cold shoulder. GW is not acting within its existing authorities to minimize the harm and trauma that survivors are forced to endure – that needs to change immediately.

GW’s handling of sexual assault cases has been in the spotlight for years – particularly since 2018, when the University denied now-former student Aniqa Raihan’s petition for the expulsion of the student who she said sexually assaulted her when she was a freshman. Since then, there has been no meaningful improvement in survivors’ ability to get justice. Rapists still walk the streets of GW and sit in classrooms with those they assaulted.

Much of the recent student advocacy in this area has focused on the University’s Title IX office. Students have reported being essentially ghosted by the very officials whose job is to respond to reports of sexual abuse. Unanswered emails and a lack of outreach indicate to survivors that the University does not care about their safety and well-being, which is unacceptable. The University has the capacity to improve the way the Title IX office operates – it has already announced that more staff are going to be hired and the process of reviewing cases is going to be revamped. Whatever way administrators are going about doing this, they should expedite it.

With students understandably reluctant to turn to the Title IX office, offering other resources is paramount to ensure their needs can be meaningfully addressed. To this end, GW should bolster the Office of Advocacy and Support, which provides survivors with emotional support and direction to other resources on campus, including room-swaps, no-contact orders and counseling. There needs to be a single, credible place for survivors to turn to if they need help and guidance, and the OAS can be that place.

But in all of these areas, the University is somewhat limited in what it can do from a legal standpoint. The Title IX office in particular cannot dramatically change its rules and approach because of new guidelines formalized in 2020 by then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. These new rules, which carry the force of law for any university receiving federal money, make it harder to bring a formal accusation of sexual assault and give perpetrators the right to face their accuser. In practice, this means that even if a student who is sexually assaulted is able to get through to the Title IX office, they may face retraumatization in seeking justice. For any disciplinary action to be made against a perpetrator, a survivor might need to be cross-examined by a lawyer for the person who raped them. This is an absurd and onerous process that makes it even more difficult and traumatizing for survivors to raise their situation to any kind of authority. And since GW receives federal funding, it must comply with these guidelines by law.

But these restrictive and unfair guidelines do not give the University an excuse for inaction. GW has an absolute obligation to keep survivors safe. Full stop. If that means getting creative, so be it. For example, the GW Police Department has the authority to ask someone to leave campus for essentially any reason whatsoever. GW could use that authority to ban all credibly accused perpetrators from campus once they graduate. The point is, GW is able to take tangible steps to work within a deeply imperfect system.

GW should also speak out more about campus sexual assault. Last year, the Editorial Board called on officials to publicly rebuke the new Title IX guidelines – the University may have to comply with them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t publicly talk about why the rules let rapists off the hook. This remains something GW should do. The University as an institution should adopt a clear public posture that it will do whatever it can and whatever it takes to protect survivors – and actually go through with it.

Students who have experienced sexual assault should not be subjected to attending class or celebrating Commencement in the same place as the person who abused them. Rapists should not be let off the hook, and survivors should not be repeatedly ignored by officials whose job is to help them. The status quo compounds survivors’ trauma and denies them their peace, and that is unacceptable. GW needs to do whatever it can to protect survivors – and even if it can’t do everything, it should at the very least answer their emails. Failure is not an option when it comes to securing students’ basic safety.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.

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