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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

GW student testifies for proposed D.C. Council bill to support sexual assault survivors

Students testified Thursday in support of a bill calling for supportive measures for sexual assault survivors brought to the D.C. Council last summer.

Senior Mathena Jencka proposed the Institution of Higher Education Sexual Misconduct Reporting and Resource Accessibility Act of 2023, which At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson introduced to the D.C. Council in July. The bill will require universities in the District to keep confidential resource advisers on staff to connect survivors to resources and help them navigate their institution and law enforcement.

Jencka, the co-president of Students Against Sexual Assault and the co-state director of the D.C. chapter of the Every Voice Coalition, a group advocating for legislation addressing sexual violence, said the sexual assault policy allows survivors to dictate the path toward their healing. Jencka said the bill’s provisions — including an amnesty policy for those reporting sexual assault that forgives conduct violations that don’t pose safety risks, trauma-informed resource advisors, annual training to personnel and pauses on GPA requirements for victims — are based on the national framework of the Every Voice Coalition, a collective of student survivors addressing campus sexual violence through legislative reform.

“During my undergraduate career, I’ve seen the trauma my peers have experienced because of sexual violence and the negligible resources available,” Jencka said during her testimony. “However, I have also seen firsthand the positive impact the policies from Bill 250436 can have on survivors.”

Jencka said the CRAs the bill requires would make survivors feel safer when seeking support after a traumatic event. She said GW’s Office of Advocacy and Support staffs CRAs — a resource all students across the District should be afforded. American and Howard universities also offer CRAs.

“Since this office has opened, there are countless survivors that inherently feel safer on campus,” Jencka said. “Every college student in D.C. deserves this kind of support, along with the relief of knowing that their peers are being educated on sexual assault prevention.”

Abby Canning, a 2023 graduate from GW, said she testified because her experiences reporting her January 2019 assault to GW’s Title IX Office was “re-traumatizing.” Investigators forced her to answer questions that made her relive the experience and participated in victim blaming, she said.

Canning said her confidential case records were mistakenly shared with another student over email, erasing the little privacy she had felt. She said when her assailant did receive the guilty verdict, she shed tears of relief.

Canning said she was disappointed that her assailant’s sentence — a one-semester suspension and watching a YouTube video about consent — was insufficient and took less time to carry out than the investigation itself.

“I realized the problem was bigger than just my assailant, that there are institutional cracks that survivors are falling through,” Canning said.

Canning said the bill’s flexible GPA requirements during a survivor’s recovery can allow them to focus more on their safety and healing, instead of feeling guilty about “throwing away” the education they aspired to obtain.

“The consequences of campus sexual violence do not start and end at a Title IX investigation,” Canning said. “That trauma shows up in every capacity of a survivor’s life, and as a community, we need to show up in those moments as well as with the support they deserve.”

Mondi Kumbula-Fraser, the vice president of government relations and general counsel for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said in a testimony that the consortium shares Henderson’s strong commitment to addressing sexual assault on campus but cannot endorse any specific bill on the topic because the consortium encompasses federal institutions and is expecting the release of updated Title IX guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which may impact its implementation.

President Joe Biden’s administration originally announced it would release the guidelines in May, which it failed to do, in addition to missing its self-imposed October deadline. Kumbala-Fraser said the consortium has noted that the guidance has already been delayed twice.

“My heart goes out to each and every student who was courageous in coming forward and sharing your stories today for your testimony,” Kumbala-Fraser said during her testimony.

Kumbula-Fraser said when the consortium received a first draft of the legislation, some members were concerned that it was “duplicative and unnecessary” because of sexual misconduct reporting covered in federal law including the Clery Act, Title IV, Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act. She said these laws already require colleges and universities to provide data regarding incidents of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.

“The consortium does not oppose the bill in any way,” Kumbala-Fraser said. “And if the bill passes, the consortium will work closely with the D.C. Council and our institutions to implement and make any adjustments that may be required by changes in federal guidance and regulations.”

Naida Henao, who testified on the behalf of Network for Victim Recovery of DC as the head of engagement, said the NVRDC also has worries about the timing of the bill with respect to forthcoming Title IX regulations.

Henao said NVRDC has “significant concerns” that CRAs will be limited in their ability to be confidential because of employment relationships with their educational institution. She said limitations surrounding CRAs’ confidentiality will set unrealistic expectations for students on the extent of their privacy, especially in cases of lawsuits against the school.

Henao said NVRDC has suggestions to improve the bill, including incorporating nonreporting options for survivors and increasing off-campus collaborations.

Henao said the bill could also be an opportunity to invest in supportive resources for survivors, regardless of whether they choose to report. She said the disconnect between survivors and actionable support is best mended by promoting the resources of local organizations off campus that are available in District like free medical forensic examinations, legal help and mental health counseling.

“It is also crucial to have enforcement mechanisms to ensure that schools are following through on providing updated and accurate lists and aren’t simply relying on national hotlines and organizations that aren’t as familiar with the options for D.C. survivors,” Henao said.

Following the council meeting, councilmembers will begin the markup and amendment process. Student advocates, representatives from NVRDC and the consortium all said they would be willing to collaborate on verbiage and provisions within the bill to ensure it aligns with organizational and students’ best interests.

The council will determine budget allocations in March, which will also impact the timeline for the potential implementation of this bill.

Austin Friebolin, Fiona Bork, Molly St. Clair and Sachini Adikari contributed reporting.

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