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Sexual assault prevention leader named as GW launches response committee

Sophie McTear | Design Editor
Sophie McTear | Design Editor

Updated: Oct. 24, 2014 at 1:53 p.m.

Top officials and students will meet monthly to discuss GW’s response to sexual violence and available resources, marking the biggest move on the issue since the University overhauled its sexual assault policy last year.

The group will report to Provost Steven Lerman and includes faculty and student leaders. Its formation also comes as GW filled a nearly year-long vacancy in its sexual assault prevention office last week, hiring an official to oversee how it handles cases and maintains compliance with federal laws.

Starting this week, the group of about a dozen students and faculty members will discuss student goals like creating mandatory sexual assault prevention training for members of Greek life and making it easier to hang up posters around campus that list resources.

Students said earlier this fall that the opening in the office left them feeling like their priorities were being pushed aside as progress stalled on goals like putting sexual assault resources on syllabi and updating the University’s sexual assault resources website.

“We’re excited for it to feel like a priority again,” said Kirsten Dimovitz, the co-president of GW Students Against Sexual Assault.

Rory Muhammad, the new Title IX coordinator, will lead the committee, meet with survivors, monitor the University’s compliance with federal laws and plan prevention and education programs like bystander intervention trainings. His hiring comes at a time when more than 70 colleges are under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases.

Muhammad, who will begin in his position Nov. 10, worked in the same role at George Mason University and spent nine years in the school’s Diversity and Equality Services office. He did not return a request for comment.

Knapp said at the Board of Trustees meeting Friday that the group would help him and other administrators get a better sense of the culture on campus.

“The truth is the students are much more aware than we can possibly be of what’s actually going on in student life,” Knapp said. “I live on campus but I don’t live in a residence hall. I don’t have a window into what the culture is, how it evolves, what the expectations are, what the anxieties are and what the roadblocks are.”

The University reported 17 forcible sex offenses to the Department of Education in 2013, according to the University’s annual security report. A sexual assault was reported in Phi Sigma Kappa last month, though the University and the Metropolitan Police Department have not released the details of the case, which remains open.

Filling the gap
Muhammad, who was the chief investigator of Title IX complaints at George Mason, also brings legal expertise that many schools seek as sexual assault has come into the national spotlight.

Since Deputy Title IX Coordinator Tara Pereira stepped down last fall, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed has taken on some of her responsibilities monitoring the University’s response to sexual assault.

Reed said in a release that Muhammad has “demonstrated success” on issues like supporting survivors and creating a fair process to file complaints. She declined repeated requests for an interview.

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The University is also hiring a second Title IX coordinator to assist Muhammad. University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to provide details about the timeline to fill that position.

Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said successful Title IX coordinators have “a good legal compliance mind and also have people skills.”

“They’ve got to be skilled at dealing with a range of people – from survivors shortly after the attack to deans and other bosses. It’s being able to manage up and manage down, and deal effectively and sensitively with victims. It takes some skills,” Berkowitz said.

He said bringing in new coordinators can put fresh eyes on a school as they “get to know all the players,” especially when they first arrive.

Maya Weinstein, a sexual assault survivor and member of the committee, said hiring Pereira’s replacement means someone can start making the “personal connections” that Pereira was known for during her time at GW. Weinstein said she still talks with the former administrator.

Pereira left the University last fall after 14 years, which included spending two years meeting with survivors, rewriting the sexual assault policy and launching a website to list sexual assault resources.

“Tara was unique in that you could call her cell phone and be like, ‘I’m coming to your office,’ and she’d be like, ‘OK, let’s go get lunch,’” Weinstein said. “So having someone who has that role and has the office and [makes it] a safe place, that’s what we’ve been missing – having a person that is just there. It’s been so empty.”

Moving forward after 11 months

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor
Kirsten Dimovitz, co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault, said establishing the monthly committee shows the University is listening to student concerns.

After almost a year of waiting for a new coordinator, Dimovitz said establishing the committee shows a University that has tuned in to student concerns about campus culture.

“I think if we achieve anything moving forward, it can’t be sporadic meetings where we get angry enough and [administrators] say we can have a meeting. It has to be very strategic,” Dimovitz said. “Everything is moving really quickly and that excites me.”

GW does not mandate sexual assault prevention training for students, though self-defense and bystander intervention classes are offered during the year.

At the Board of Trustees meeting Friday, Student Association President Nick Gumas called for mandatory sexual assault prevention training for all students, and said the optional sessions offered during freshmen orientation have “incredibly low turnout.”

“Chances are the students that go to that optional session are not the students that need to be hearing the important information that is discussed in the sessions,” Gumas said.

Last month, Gumas joined Knapp at the White House as the University signed on to President Barack Obama’s sexual assault prevention campaign, “It’s On Us.” The campaign focuses on including men in conversations about sexual assault on college campuses.

Student Association Sen. Omeed Firouzi, U-At Large, who is also serving on the committee, said Muhammad could help promote conversations about how men on campus can prevent assault.

“I think having a man in that leadership role shows that this is not an issue that guys are avoiding or should avoid,” Firouzi said.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes nationwide, with women reporting about 12 percent of their attacks, while men report assaults at about half that rate. The University does not release the gender of sexual assault victims who report their crimes.

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the committee focused on sexual assault response would report to University President Steven Knapp. It will report to Provost Steven Lerman. In a graphic, The Hatchet incorrectly reported that an outside consultant helped in the Title IX coordinator hiring process. She only reviewed GW’s sexual assault response. We regret these errors.

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