By Shannon Mallard - The GW Hatchet
Title IX experts said officials are not likely to adopt the stricter sanctions for sexual assault called for in a petition posted late last month.
Sophomore Abby Canning, the petition's author, urged officials to suspend assailants until survivors graduate and impose harsher penalties for repeat offenders or "aggravated circumstances," citing officials' handling of her own sexual assault case as evidence of lax policies. Title IX experts said officials might be hesitant to adopt the proposed sanctions because universities generally decide sexual assault penalties on a case-by-case basis rather than a consistent punitive standard.
"This is only one example of GW's pattern of using disproportionate sanctions against sexual assailants," Canning said in the petition.
The petition has garnered more than 1,000 signatures as of Sunday evening.
Bilal Bongo, Canning's assailant, received a one-semester suspension for sexually assaulting her in January 2019, according to documentation of a Title IX investigation obtained by The Hatchet. Canning said in the petition she felt Bongo's sanction was insufficient.
Bongo said he was "wrongly" convicted of the assault and said his encounter with Canning was a "genuine hookup" that he stopped when she expressed discomfort.
Marissa Pollick, a sports management lecturer at the University of Michigan with experience in Title IX research, said universities are generally more unlikely to implement harsher penalties because of new Title IX regulations that grant more rights to the accused.
She said universities are concerned with protecting themselves legally, adding that she has seen an uptick in the past few years in the number of students filing lawsuits claiming they were wrongly accused of sexual assault under Obama-era Title IX guidelines.
U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos published new regulations Thursday governing Title IX proceedings that federally-funded educational institutions must implement by August. The regulations include measures like forgoing the single investigator model – which GW currently uses – in favor of multiple-person hearing boards and allowing cross-examination during case proceedings.
"Ultimately, the University will weigh legal obligations and balance their own interests," Pollick said. "And the fact is, ultimately they want to protect themselves from liability."
Pollick said the sanction suggested in the petition is "unusually high" by most universities' standards. She added that most institutions of higher education decide sanctions based on the specific facts of a case, so imposing a minimum penalty could be difficult.
"Given that these cases are so fact-specific, that's why schools have had leeway to just impose discipline on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a number of factors," Pollick said.
Alan Sash, a partner in the litigation department at the law firm McLaughlin & Stern, said the petition may encourage officials to adopt stricter penalties for sexual assault because universities might be more likely to respond to students' firsthand accounts of their experiences.
"A lot of times the experiences that students feel on the frontlines, living at the university every day and experiencing things at the university is a good indicator of how we should evolve," Sash said.
University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said in response to the petition late last month that GW takes reports of sexual harassment "seriously."
"The safety and well-being of our community is our top priority," Nosal said in an email. "We strive to provide each person who comes forward with a thorough and fair investigation."
Sash said officials should take the petition "seriously" to ensure rules governing Title IX investigations serve the best interests of students.
"The rules are meant to serve the students, and if the students see a hole in the walls that need to be fixed, I think they should have every right to petition the school to remedy those holes," Sash said.
He said suspending assailants until survivors graduate and doling out harsher penalties to repeat offenders are worthwhile policies to adopt to protect students and sufficiently punish those found guilty of sexual assault. But he said Title IX officials should focus on establishing consistent standards for how to sanction different types of sexual assault and harassment.
GW considers factors like the "nature" of the conduct at issue and the impact of the misconduct on the complainant when determining sanctions for a case, according to the Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy. Potential sanctions for sexual assault include suspension, expulsion, disciplinary probation and No Contact Orders – which bar assailants from contacting survivors – according to the policy.
"That seems to be very much appropriate to have one person be suspended from the university until the victim leaves or completely dismissed or expel the person who's found responsible for sexual assault under the definition provided under the criminal law," Sash said.
Jody Shipper, the co-founder of and Title IX services practice lead at Title IX consulting firm Grand River Solutions, said harsher penalties generally do not serve as a significant deterrent to sexual assault. Instead, harsher penalties may discourage survivors from reporting their assault, especially if survivors are concerned less about getting the assailant in trouble and more concerned with requesting assistance from the university.
She added that GW should focus on implementing quality Title IX and bystander intervention training to decrease the overall incidence of sexual assault on campus.
First-year students must attend in-person sexual assault prevention training and complete online diversity training during their first semester. The Student Association Senate passed legislation last spring calling for members of student organizations to participate in separate Title IX training sessions.
"Things that we know about that do help include greatly improved bystander training," Shipper said. "Empowering people to be really powerful bystanders so that if you and I were at a party together, and I saw that you were out of it or a little bit drunk or you weren't sure what you were doing, and I saw someone trying to get you alone or get you away from the group – I could recognize that that's really not cool."
Shipper said GW should consider determining the length of the sanction based on how long the survivor will continue at the University before graduating, citing the examples of a student who assaulted a freshman student versus an individual who assaulted a senior about to graduate.
"It can raise a lot of interesting issues that have to be carefully thought out," Shipper said.