Combating Sexual Assault

Sandra Gilbreth, a desk clerk and advocate for the Equal Opportunity Office, works at the desk on Friday, September 19, 2014 at the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building in Athens, GA. (Photo/Jessica Beach).

Georgia has no state laws directly dealing with sexual harassment.

This fact, along with several others relating to the legal process behind reporting sexual harassment were revealed by Elaine Woo, the Law Fellow at Atlanta Women for Equality, at the Institute for Women’s Studies Friday Speaker Series lecture on Jan. 29.

Woo’s presentation “Sexual Harassment and Assault on Campus: The Legal Side of Gender Equity,” was held in a mostly full classroom of students in the Zell Miller Learning Center and addressed how students should go about filing sexual harassment charges.

Woo said although Georgia, like many other states, has no law dealing directly with sexual harassment, there are still many options for students who feel they are being or have been sexually harassed.

“The first step is always to tell the harasser to stop,” she said, regarding milder forms of sexual harassment. “Sometimes letting the person know they are crossing the line is enough.”

If that is not successful, Woo said the next step a student should take is to find someone he or she trusts and talk to them about the harassment they are facing.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone involved with the university or situation where the harassment is occurring, Woo said.

“Get to the point where you can wrap your mind around what is happening and get to where you can get comfortable deciding your next step moving forward,” she said.

For those students who decide to file a claim against their harasser, she mentioned there are many routes a person can take.

One is through the school itself.

All public schools are held to a federal law that makes sexual discrimination illegal, called Title IX. This sexual discrimination applies to gender equality in categories like sports and recruitment, but it also includes rules regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The University of Georgia, for example, has a non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy  under which any student who files sexual harassment charges will be given a resolution of the investigation within 60 calendar days.

This resolution will be reached by an individual investigator who will interview potential witnesses and make his or her own decision about the charges.

Several schools are starting to move away from this individual investigator method and toward a panel of students and faculty who will review the case, Woo said.

During the investigation, Woo said the university should take measures to make the supposedly harassed student feel comfortable to attend class or to participate in an extracurricular organization even before there is proof of their claims.

If evidence of sexual harassment was found through the investigation, no criminal or civil charges will automatically be filed through the school’s sexual harassment charge system. Instead, university disciplinary action may be taken.

Criminal or civil actions and investigation may occur during, before or after the university’s investigation, according to UGA’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy.

Sanctions the university may take include mandatory training or counseling,written warning or expulsion, depending on the severity of the harassment.

Another option for victims seeking similar punishment options for their harassers is to file charges through the United States Department of State’s Office or Civil Rights.

Some students may feel more comfortable going through the U.S. department because they have no relation to the school and may be viewed as an impartial party.

If a student is looking for harsher repercussions for the harasser, however, he or she must also be willing to face a more rigorous background check and a more time-consuming trial because the standards required for evidence are higher due to the higher stakes of the sanctions, Woo said.  

“What happens, unfortunately is that the person who is bringing the case gets a lot of the burden placed on himself or herself [throughout the trial],” Woo said.

In criminal court, the victim’s attorney must be able to prove that the accused harasser is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a process that can sometimes take years to complete.

Despite the length and rigor of the criminal  process, Woo said she did not dissuade any student from pursuing that or any other line of justice if it feels appropriate to the individual.

“Some people need the process to heal,” she said. “Others need the money for medical bills.”

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