By Shannon Mallard
The number of complaints filed against GW in the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights has declined 70 percent over the past five years.
The OCR – a DOE branch that investigates discrimination allegations – launched 10 federal probes into discriminatory behavior claims in 2015 but only investigated three cases of alleged discrimination in 2019. Discrimination law experts said the number of complaints may have decreased after officials mandated diversity and Title IX trainings and better handling of cases at the University level.
Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said the number of complaints filed with the OCR each year is "unpredictable" and cannot "easily" be attributed to specific factors. Laguerre-Brown said an individual could file more than one report with the OCR in a certain year, and the DOE may consider each grievance as a separate complaint.
"Still, we fully recognize that regardless of whether the number of complaints filed with OCR increases or decreases in any given year, complacency is simply not an option, and we remain committed to ongoing analysis and improvement of systems and processes for addressing student concerns," Laguerre-Brown said in an email.
Laguerre-Brown said officials have taken measures like revising the Code of Student Conduct and reworking the Equal Opportunity, Non-Discrimination, Anti-Harassment and Non-Retaliation Policy to ensure GW is equipped to handle discrimination cases.
Officials debuted a bias incident reporting website last February that allows faculty, students and staff to report bias-related acts for the Bias Incident Response Team – which includes administrators from offices like the Division of Operations – to review. Laguerre-Brown added that officials "regularly" evaluate ways to increase student awareness of resources like the Title IX and ethics offices.
Of the 24 cases brought against GW between 2015 and 2018, only one complaint stated that the University violated an individual's rights and required officials to take corrective action, according to a ProPublica report.
In 2017, the OCR began investigating GW's website accessibility. The probe found that University websites lacked viewing features like video and photo captions to accommodate disabled individuals' needs.
Officials formed a task force in early 2018 to examine website accessibility issues. GW met its first OCR deadline to make online content more accessible last January.
The OCR initiated an investigation into a complaint alleging that officials retaliated against a former student for protesting age discrimination last January. The complainant alleged that the University fostered a culture in which longer-serving professors "bully" non-tenured and clinical research faculty.
When the DOE publicly listed the complaint on the OCR website in February, officials said they were "confident" they acted "appropriately" toward the student. The complaint is still listed on the OCR website.
The OCR also opened two investigations into allegations of disability discrimination later that month.
The first inquiry investigated whether GW denied an individual benefits on the basis of their disability, and the second launched an investigation into whether the University retaliated against an individual for protesting disability discrimination. Neither complaint is listed on the OCR website.
Education and enforcement
Alan Sash, a partner in the litigation department at the firm McLaughlin & Stern who has worked on Title IX cases, said students come from a variety of different backgrounds, so officials should establish clear standards of acceptable interpersonal behavior. He said instituting mandatory diversity and Title IX training for students could result in a decrease in the number of complaints filed with the DOE.
Incoming students are required to attend in-person sexual assault prevention training and complete online diversity training during their first semester. The Student Association Senate passed legislation last spring demanding that members of student organizations participate in separate Title IX training sessions.
Sash added that educating students about the consequences associated with sex, race, age and disability discrimination deters prejudiced behavior.
"The mandatory Title IX training for incoming freshmen is huge," he said. "Because you are getting young men and women, some 17 and 18, from across the country – maybe even the world – where norms of what's appropriate and what's not are very different to different people."
Improving institutional responses
Sash said the number of complaints filed with the OCR will likely decrease if officials handle allegations of discriminatory behavior with a "fair" investigation process that doesn't make "presumptions" about the individuals involved in a case.
Officials overhauled the Title IX investigation process in 2018. Under current GW policies, a single official handles individual sexual assault cases rather than a multiple-person hearing board, and all faculty are required to report sexual harassment incidents to the Title IX office.
"If you follow the facts, you have to investigate," Sash said. "You have to investigate fully and fairly and listen to people and treat everybody with respect."
Dan Schorr, the managing director of Ankura – a risk management consulting firm – and a former sex crimes prosecutor, said partnering with the OCR to develop responses to individual cases could decrease the likelihood of future complaints. He said collaborating with the OCR provides officials with the tools to address discriminatory behavior.
Schorr added that instituting bystander intervention training for students can lead to fewer complaints because officials will be equipped to handle discrimination cases before individuals feel the need to complain to the OCR.
"If the campus works with OCR and other experts in the field and develops and implements best practices to address sexual misconduct and discrimination, that should lead to a decrease in complaints if that's effectively done," Schorr said.
Marissa Pollick, a sports management lecturer at the University of Michigan with experience in Title IX research, said DOE reforms implemented under President Donald Trump's administration – like rolling back protections for sexual assault survivors – could cause a decrease in complaints. Pollick said individuals facing discrimination might be less inclined to report incidents if they feel the agency will not adequately respond to and investigate complaints.
In November 2018, the DOE announced proposed Title IX guidelines that eliminate the single-investigator model, allow institutions to dismiss assault cases that occur off-campus, require cross-examination during investigations and use a more stringent standard for determining guilt.
"If the administration doesn't prioritize civil rights, as this one does not seem to be doing, it's not unusual to see a decline," she said.