Kept in the Dark?

With rules around Title IX in flux, a George Washington University student has filed a different kind of complaint against the institution, alleging it violated another federal law designed to protect survivors.

May 17, 2019
 

A George Washington University student has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, accusing the institution of violating the federal law that protects sexual assault survivors and requires colleges and universities to share information about sex-related crimes reported on their campuses.

The Washington-based law firm Fierberg National Law Group filed the complaint on behalf of Gillian Chandler in March. George Washington officials deemed a former student responsible for raping Chandler after she attended an off-campus party in 2015, blacked out and woke up as she was being sexually assaulted. Chandler said she believed she was drugged.

The complaint comes at a time when many of the federal rules around campus sexual assault are in flux. In 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pulled back Obama-era policies around how colleges should investigate sexual violence. DeVos instead proposed regulations relating to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal anti-sex-discrimination law, that pundits said were far more lenient on those accused of rape. The proposed new Title IX rules, which were released last year, were met with scorn by survivor advocates and recently went through a public comment period -- the department has not yet approved them.

“Given that Title IX is being twisted to protect those accused rather than those victimized, many survivors are turning to the Clery Act Compliance Division, where campus safety is taken seriously,” said Laura Dunn, a lawyer with the Fierberg group.

Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said that survivor advocates such as Dunn are likely testing DeVos’s resolve to enforce hard regulations. He said Congress may also ramp up its interest in how the department approaches its regulatory authority and uses it.

“I imagine DeVos will risk being critiqued for not investigating or enforcing regulatory mandates especially in the face of public utterances favoring regulations over mere guidance,” Lake said.

While Inside Higher Ed does not generally identify sexual assault survivors, Chandler has consented to have her name used publicly and has been vocal about her case. After the student she accused of assault sued the university last year, alleging that administrators were biased when they found him responsible, Chandler gave an interview to the student newspaper, The GW Hatchet, and shared her story on Facebook. The accused student, who has remained anonymous in court filings, also accused Chandler of lying during her campus hearing, a claim that was ultimately disproven.

Chandler’s new complaint, alleging that administrators infringed on the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, concerns whether they informed her of her attacker’s sanctions, as the law requires. She alleges that the university revoked his punishments and did not tell her.

A George Washington spokeswoman, Maralee Csellarm, said in a statement that “we take our obligations under the Clery Act and other related federal laws seriously. If we are contacted by the Department of Education about this complaint, we will respond accordingly.”

The Education Department has confirmed with Dunn it received the complaint.

Chandler said she was raped in 2015 after attending a party at an off-campus house where the men’s rugby team typically hosted parties. She said she was told later that the alcohol she had been drinking had been drugged. Chandler remembers only pieces of the night -- returning to campus in an Uber ride with her alleged attacker and waking up to him raping her.

She did not report the episode to the university until about two years later, in October 2017, after, she said, she was worn down by avoiding the student and seeing him enroll in her classes.

The university found him responsible for the rape in January 2018, suspending him through the rest of the calendar year and banning him from all university property through June 2019. The student also wasn’t allowed to contact Chandler -- the university had given him such an order shortly after she reported the assault.

After his appeal was denied, the student sued the university. In May 2018, he alleged Chandler had lied in her statements, which was proven false with phone records -- but the accusation still was reported by conservative news media.

“As likely intended … there was significant media coverage regarding the false claims brought … against Ms. Chandler, which exacerbated and contributed to the further loss of her privacy and ongoing harassment by strangers,” the complaint reads.

In October, Chandler tried to file another report against the student, saying he had contacted her on Facebook, but the university ultimately declined to investigate, saying she only had “circumstantial evidence.” The Clery complaint states that Chandler believed officials didn’t look into her accusation because of the pending lawsuit.

In March, a lawyer for George Washington told Chandler that the accused student’s lawsuit had been “resolved” but the outcome was confidential. The university’s lawyer declined to tell Chandler whether the original punishments were still in place. The lawyer told Chandler’s representatives that it was “the expectation” the student wouldn’t contact her, but declined to say whether the order for him not to trespass on the grounds had been lifted.

The complaint is multifold: that the university didn’t investigate Chandler’s second report, as well as a second, separate report of rape against the student because of his lawsuit, and that the university violated Clery by not telling Chandler if administrators rescinded or changed the student’s punishments.

“A year and a half after I reported the sexual violence to the Title IX Office, the case has settled, and I have been pushed aside during that process,” Chandler said in a statement included in the complaint. “This entire ordeal has left me feeling like GWU is not interested in protecting my safety and well-being on campus, but rather is refusing to acknowledge my rights ever since he filed suit against the institution. Now I have less than two months left at GWU before completing my degree. I am still afraid to walk around on campus and to speak with anyone within the administration after this situation.”

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