Maya Weinstein graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and human services in January.
Since being raped my freshman year, I’ve been outspoken about my experience with the University as a survivor. Now, with Commencement looming, there is one last thing I have to say: I’ve been afraid to be completely honest about my experience.
I’ve been careful and calculated in what I have revealed about the way my sexual assault was handled by the University. I initially reported the rape to the Title IX office in order to gain a no-contact order. But a month later, I still felt unsafe on campus and chose to move forward and file a formal complaint in order to achieve justice. At this stage, the case was handed over to The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) for the investigation. SRR is the disciplinary body of the University and houses sexual assault investigations and proceedings. Case managers interview the parties involved to obtain statements, as well as interview relevant witnesses and collect evidence (text messages, police reports, photographs, etc.). Once the administrative review is complete, SRR staff determine whether the case should move forward to a hearing for further review. If there is a hearing, it is adjudicated by members of the judicial board (typically students, staff and faculty) and supervised by members of SRR. In cases involving students, SRR determines corrective actions and sanctions, and the outcome sometimes must be signed off by the Dean of Student Affairs and Senior Associate Provost.
My sophomore year, I shared my experience and proposed policy changes. But I chose to remain anonymous and hide details of my case because I was afraid. I have consistently feared that the University would retaliate against me. I have struggled to love my college experience because I have been helpless at the hands of my institution. But this struggle goes beyond just me.
I spoke with a survivor who went through the hearing process at GW last semester – two years after I did. When she told me her story, I felt like I was listening to my own. We had all the same problems – meetings with the administration, empty promises. Even though the survivor received a favorable outcome, the entire process consisted of fighting against an inadequate system. I realize I cannot walk away from GW without sharing truth, raising awareness and demanding change.
The SRR investigation, hearing process and enforcement of sanctions were riddled with inconsistencies that jeopardized my opportunity to a safe education. While I feel that GW’s policies stretch and bend Title IX rules and guidelines to begin with, SRR outright ignored its own rules at times and failed to provide an equitable complaint process:
Information was not provided to me in a timely manner. I was told the delay was because I reported my assault in the summer – as if somehow rape matters less if it’s reported during the summer. The U.S. Department of Education recommends 60 days for the full process to run from complaint to final resolution, including appeals. My case took 99 long, painstaking days.
The student who raped me didn’t attend the hearing in person. Instead, he called in. I was verbally scrutinized in person, forced to defend myself while he could have been in a room surrounded by lawyers.
The perpetrator and I were required to submit all evidence and statements two full days before the hearing, which I complied with. Yet, the perpetrator was allowed to present two witness statements in the middle of the hearing. I was not prepared for the slanderous statements his friends had written for him.
The final decision wasn’t made by SRR until after students started moving back in for the fall semester. I had no idea whether I should anticipate seeing the rapist on campus.
After the perpetrator violated sanctions and was called in for a disciplinary review, I tried to learn the outcome. The administration refused to disclose information, citing FERPA, even though any disciplinary action would directly impact the result of my hearing. I had to fight for a response.
SRR granted the perpetrator an exception to his sanctions to attend a fraternity party and did not inform me.
The University failed me on many levels, and they violated my Title IX rights. While the administration absolutely needs to begin working on changes its policies, it must change its culture immediately. I have witnessed and experienced a pervasive culture of inaction and indifference. Through my time at GW I continuously tried to seek answers about why SRR provided the perpetrator a free pass to violate his sanctions. At one point, the director of SRR told me that I needed to understand “how difficult this has been” on the man who raped me.
One year ago, student groups co-sponsored a screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary discussing how universities mishandle sexual assault cases. The screening was on a Friday night, and every seat in that auditorium was filled by a diverse collection of students who chose to spend their weekend watching a film about the mishandling of sexual assaults by universities. Only one GW administrator showed up. It was incredible to see how much the student body cared, and it proved that the administration doesn’t care as much. In fact – even though I doubt anyone would confirm it – a former University employee told me they were instructed not to attend.
While many people within the administration are well-intentioned, as a whole the administration is terrified by anything that may tarnish the institution’s reputation. Nothing will change unless we demand an open conversation, based on facts and motivated by seeking the truth. This is a problem at many universities, but that’s no excuse for my experience or that of the dozens of survivors. GW has an opportunity to be the model university. I want my alma mater to be that university.
After proposing policy changes to a group of administrators in Fall 2013, it wasn’t until Fall 2014 that I was invited to sit on the inaugural Provost’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response – a committee that the Provost himself never attended” In order to actually participate, I was required to sign a confidentiality form for that was so strict it forbade me from discussing the content of meetings with entities ranging from the FBI to my own parents. It was an opportunity to work alongside, instead of against, the school. Instead of leading a transparent discussion about how to solve a real problem in the GW community, the administration hid behind confidentiality agreements.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any progress. After over a year without one, a new Title IX coordinator was brought to campus at the end of 2014, and the Assistant Director for sexual assault prevention and response came to campus last year. Last summer, Colonial Inauguration and Welcome Week included education and programming surrounding sexual assault. And in 2014, a GW climate survey was sent out with results that matched national campus sexual assault statistics.
But while officials are checking off some of the boxes of federal requirements and recommendations, glaring issues still exist in practice. There is no longer a sexual assault support group at the counseling center, and no plans in the foreseeable future exist to start one. The administration can try to say things have changed, but survivors disclose their assaults to me daily, and I hear the same thing over and over: “The University is not supporting me.” Survivors and allies are fed up and frustrated.
The last thing I want is to deter survivors from coming forward out of fear of the retraumatization I had to go through. If you want to report, you should. It’s not in the best interest of every survivor to come forward or speak out at all, and that’s OK. As students begin to work to change a negative culture, there will be a focus on administrators to take action. And that spotlight will force them to openly amend policies and receive student input. A university is nothing without its students.
I chose not to file a Title IX complaint against the University for many reasons. I had been advised to leave the University, and I had chosen not to. I didn’t want to do anything that could get in the way of me getting my diploma. But I am exhausted from fighting, feeling frustrated, getting stonewalled, rationalizing their inaction, and mostly, I am tired of being afraid. I do not want to walk away having squandered an opportunity to share the truth. I hope that this inspires people to speak up, even if they’re afraid, and to fight harder than I did – because this is not the end of the road.
I have my diploma, and I get to walk across that stage at graduation. With every step I take, I’ll be thinking of survivors who were not able to stay at their universities to graduate – those who were forced out, faced retaliation and those who took their lives because their institutions didn’t believe them. On May 14, I walk in solidarity.