By Leah Potter
A federal investigation into the University's possible mishandling of a sexual violence complaint could force officials to change how sexual assault cases are managed, experts said.
The probe – which began earlier this month – could lead to a clearer and more efficient process for all involved in sexual assault cases, Title IX experts said. Federal investigators are likely to collect documents from the Title IX office in the coming weeks and could visit campus to interview students and officials, according to experts familiar with how the investigations are conducted.
GW became one of more than 250 schools under Title IX investigation Aug. 8 after an individual filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging the University had not properly handled a sexual violence case. Details of the complaint have not been made public.
The University will cooperate with the inquiry, a University spokeswoman said earlier this month. After GW's last federal Title IX investigation in 2011, officials formalized a policy that distinguished offenders of sexual assault from students who committed other acts of violence.
The investigative process
Alan Sash, a partner in the litigation department at McLaughlin & Stern who has worked on Title IX cases, said an investigation will begin with officials from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights requesting documents, including Title IX complaints, individual case files, investigative reports and rules governing how the University responds to sexual violence cases.
Officials from the Office of Civil Rights may hold open office hours on campus to meet with students in order to gain insight into the University's Title IX processes and campus climate, he said.
"It's essentially a Title IX audit," Sash said in an email. "It's a significant undertaking for both the University and the Office of Civil Rights."
The length of Title IX investigations varies based on the individual case, experts said. Inquiries that began as early as 2012 remain open, but investigations can wrap up after several months, according to documents from the DOE.
Sash said OCR may require the University to make substantive changes to its Title IX department, including how the University processes and investigates Title IX complaints. Their recommendations might also include minor changes in policy language or communication standards, he said.
Kalpana Vissa, the co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said she hopes the investigation will press the University to improve how survivor's cases are managed.
"I hope this puts pressure on the University to revisit our policies and procedures and ensure that we are working to support survivors in the best way that we can," she said in an email.
Dan Schorr, the managing director at Kroll Associates, a corporate investigations and risk consulting firm and the co-leader of its sexual misconduct and Title IX investigations practice, said in particularly egregious cases, an investigation can lead to a loss of federal funding for a university, although that outcome is extremely rare.
Schorr said a more pressing issue is harm to a university's reputation because officials are often concerned that being under investigation presents the appearance of guilt or mismanagement, even if the individual's allegations are unwarranted.
"Currently a lot of schools are under investigation, and there's definitely a concern among schools that there's a reputational risk when they're under investigation," Schorr said.
Impact of a new administration
Former President Barack Obama's administration was more aggressive in launching investigations of possible Title IX violations, part of an effort to crackdown on the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses. GW joined "It's on US" after the Obama administration launched the program in 2014.
But GW's probe will likely have a narrower scope after the DOE – under President Donald Trump – told civil rights investigators to examine only individual complaints while conducting a probe, not a University's history of discrimination.
Jody Shipper, the co-founder of Project IX and the former executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity and chief Title IX administrator at the University of Southern California, said directives from the new administration could impact the type of changes investigators will require from a University.
"A lot of those good improvements came in the past under the previous administration when there were those broader systemic reviews," she added. "It's a new administration, you know, very different in how they're handling things, so even if you had spoken to me a year ago, we'd be having a very different conversation."
GW's history with Title IX
Shan Wu, former federal prosecutor and current student defense attorney who specializes in Title IX cases, said the University's external review of its Title IX procedures, announced in July, could further complicate the federal investigation.
"The processes are not likely to overlap, but an internal review by GW may help it prepare for the DOE investigation," he said. "On the other hand, GW would need to be concerned about whether the results of their internal investigation might be subject to disclosure to DOE."
The University announced earlier this month that the Title IX office hired three new staff members, including two new positions – a Title IX investigator to lead inquiries and a case manager, who will direct students to resources and provide case status updates to all involved parties. The department has been under scrutiny for minimal staffing and high turnover in previous years.
Within the last six months, the University has come under fire for its handling of sexual assault cases, with student-led protests and petitions after Aniqa Raihan – an alumna and survivor of sexual assault – learned that her assailant received a lesser punishment than the University's recommended minimum sanction.
Student activists protested the discussion throughout the spring. Her case drew the attention of student leaders, who rallied around her, and officials, who vowed to look for ways to increase transparency and communication in sexual assault cases.
Raihan said that she hopes this investigation will improve conditions for survivors moving through the case process.
"I'm glad whoever filed this is using the system to their benefit to demand justice, and I think it will make a difference," she said. "I hope GW will be moved to action."