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Title IX, UPD turnover affects sexual violence survivors, experts say

Bailey Ham | Hatchet Designer

In recent years, positions designed to work with sexual assault survivors on campus have seen frequent turnover, and the University has released little information on staff searches.

The Title IX Office and the University Police Department are hiring for four positions that work with survivors of sexual violence after two high-level resignations this academic year. Sexual assault survivors and experts said the high amount of turnover for these types of positions creates an unstable environment for those seeking support.

Three different people have served as the victim services coordinator – the staff member who provides survivor support through the reporting process – over the last three years, and an interim has filled the role since the fall. The Title IX office is searching for an assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response and trying to fill two positions – a Title IX investigator, who will conduct investigations of all allegations, and a paralegal, who will focus on tracking cases and communicating with those involved in the case.

Rory Muhammad, the Title IX Coordinator, is currently the only full-time, permanent staff member in the Title IX office.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that people leave positions for a variety of reasons, like new work opportunities.

“Staff members come and go just like they do in business or government and it is typical for an institution of our size,” she said.

Csellar declined to comment on why there has been such a high rate of turnover in the Title IX office and how many candidates the office is interviewing for the two open spots. She also declined to comment on how turnover affects survivors.

Vacancy in victim services
The victim services coordinator provides assistance in reporting criminal conduct and helps complainants navigate civil and criminal court processes, like obtaining temporary restraining orders and contacting the local-area law enforcement, UPD Chief RaShall Brackney said in an email.

The enrollment status of an alleged assailant determines whether Title IX or UPD works with the complainant: If an individual accused of dating violence is not an enrolled student, then the victim services coordinator in UPD would handle the case.

Over the past three years, no one has lasted as victim services coordinator for more than two years.

Suzanne Combs, the former victim services coordinator, started in spring 2013 and left in summer 2015. Heryca Serna, the former victim services coordinator, worked in the position for nine months before leaving last September to pursue another job opportunity, according to Serna’s LinkedIn.

Kevin Sullivan, Serna’s former supervisor, has been interim victim services coordinator since Serna’s departure, Brackney said.

“The position will continue to be a resource for GW community members who are sexual assault survivors and provide them with resources and consultation,” Brackney said. “The coordinator also will continue to work closely with the Title IX office to coordinate resources and information about sexual assault for the GW community.”

Brackney and Sullivan are co-leading the search to fill the position and have been “impressed” by the number of candidates they have interviewed, Brackney said. She declined to say how many they have interviewed and when they plan to hire someone.

The position’s job description will not change when a new coordinator is hired, Brackney added.

Alumna Maya Weinstein, a sexual assault survivor and former member of the Committee for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, said survivors need to have someone they can trust when they’re reporting an act of sexual assault. New hires often “don’t know the school well or how it works or what the culture is,” she said.

“Survivors don’t know where to go because there is not a consistent person, there is no name recognition,” Weinstein said. “It takes a long time for the student population to find an individual in a role like that credible. And none of these people have been there long enough to establish that.”

Weinstein said hiring new people may not solve the problem because the University must first identify why turnover happens so frequently.

“I will say that goes for all parties involved in these types of cases, you do want to build a relationship with someone and know that they are going to be there the next day if you need them,” she said. “Watching this turnover is very disheartening and makes a lot of people very nervous.”

Timeline of turnover
Officials have said that the Title IX office is now adding the two new positions – a Title IX investigator and a paralegal – to improve the office’s capacity, provide additional services and increase efficiency. The office is also searching for an assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response.

Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said the three positions in the Title IX office have been posted and searches are currently being conducted.

Carrie Ross, the former assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response, started in her role in March 2015 and resigned in January. Ross played a crucial role in the office, helping to analyze the results of the campus climate surveys and overseeing the first mandatory education sessions for incoming first-year students after officials decided to add more prevention education.

Jocelyn Jacoby, the co-president of SASA who has been helping interview candidates for the Title IX positions, said high turnover makes it difficult for survivors to know who to report to. The University has included SASA in the interview process and she said she knows of at least three Title IX interviews that have taken place for the coordinator position, she said.

Jacoby said that it was difficult for SASA to lose Ross as a resource because she was involved with student groups and was often survivors’ go-to resource.

“Survivors trusted Carrie, we trusted Carrie,” Jacoby said. “People don’t know who to go to now and right now there is no one.”

Laguerre-Brown said in an email that since Ross left GW, she and Muhammad have been supporting and assisting survivors.

“The Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement continue to collaborate alongside our campus partner GWPD in providing a full range of services to survivors without any disruption,” Laguerre-Brown said.

Former deputy Title IX coordinator Tara Parriera left the Title IX office in fall 2013 after 14 years in the role, where she oversaw GW’s efforts to prevent and respond to instances of sexual violence. The position then became Title IX coordinator, and remained vacant for 11 months. Current Title IX coordinator Rory Muhammad was hired in 2014.

Burning out quickly
Sexual assault experts said universities need to have trusted people who have handled sexual violence cases for years to ensure survivors feel comfortable reporting abuse.

Shan Wu, a former Department of Justice sex crimes prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney specializing in student legal issues, said in an email that the victim services coordinator position should be filled by someone who has experience managing a large case load with different types of offenses.

Constant transition in these roles can hurt support networks on campuses, he said.

“The high turnover hurts the consistency of the Title IX office and interferes with building ongoing trust and relationships with the campus community,” Wu said.

Laura Dunn, the founder and executive director of SurvJustice – an organization that provides support to survivors of sexual violence – said Title IX coordinators can feel overworked if they do not have adequate support and resources.

Dunn said that a high rate of turnover is a reflection of the lack of structure within UPD and the Title IX office.

“Any position that has this amount of turnover in any area, that’s a red flag,” Dunn said.

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