By Ruth Steinhardt
From an early age, Asha Reynolds knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
“It was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” said Ms. Reynolds, now a Title IX investigator at the George Washington University. “I recall being very young and being only allowed to watch TV for one hour per day, so my sister and I put on a kind of family court for our parents.”
The sisters argued that the educational value of PBS shows like “The Electric Company” and “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego” outweighed the drawbacks of increased screen time.
“I think my family members would describe me as someone who always liked to argue,” she said, laughing.
In the years since, Ms. Reynolds’ taste for argument mellowed, though her belief in justice did not. Her legal career has cycled through all sides of the criminal justice system, from an early internship in the District of Columbia Public Defender’s Office to a judicial internship on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to a five-year stint as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
But Ms. Reynolds found that the criminal justice system was often ill-equipped to provide the kinds of services and support that could help victims and defendants alike break the cycle of violence.
One case involved a young victim who had been slashed in the face by an 18-year-old gang member. The victim had major developmental delays and needed counseling and resources to be prepared for testimony. The perpetrator had his own set of struggles and disadvantages, including an early alcohol problem, and criminal prosecution alone “was not what he needed to make a change in his life,” Ms. Reynolds said.
“In my role as a prosecutor, while I could help the victim to get the retribution that he deserved, I often felt it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I didn’t feel like my role in that process was comprehensive enough. The services that needed to be provided in that case were not being provided by the criminal justice system.”
After leaving the district attorney’s office, Ms. Reynolds moved to Seattle and then to Maryland, where she joined the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Sexual Assault Legal Institute as a managing attorney.
“We were advocating for policy changes, but I wanted to see for myself what implementation of those policies on a college campus was actually like,” she said. “I’ve always been someone who wanted to work, not from outside the system, but from within the system to make it the system that it should be.”
As a Title IX investigator, Ms. Reynolds and her fellow investigator Kiera Blore look into evidence of reported violations of GW’s sex and gender based harassment and interpersonal violence policy. Ms. Reynolds sees her job as providing resources and solutions—as systemic, holistic and restorative rather than adversarial.
“What is appealing is that I do not represent any particular party in the process,” she said. “I have an interest in the fairness of the process itself. We want to ensure that support services are provided to all the parties involved, and we start every investigation as a blank slate. The only thing that moves us is where the evidence takes us.”
That evidence includes social media, text messages, surveillance video and more. It can, of course, be contradictory or counterintuitive, especially since traumatized people don’t always behave in the ways an outsider might expect.
Ms. Reynolds experienced that phenomenon in her job as a prosecutor, as in a case where one witness would cover her mouth and laugh when describing traumatic events. Afraid that the jury would not understand her behavior, Ms. Reynolds asked the witness why she did this. The woman told her that laughter had always been her automatic reaction to pain and stress.
“We always ask why,” Ms. Reynolds said. “If the evidence suggests someone is behaving in a way that might be different than we typically expect, we ask about their thought process and why they might have reacted that way. It’s important to let people explain themselves, and that’s one way we can read complex situations better.”
Case resolutions in the Title IX Office vary. In some cases, a complainant may ask to read an impact statement to the person they feel is responsible for the violation and may get closure from an apology. In cases involving a disciplinary resolution, if the Title IX Office finds that it is more likely than not that the responding party is responsible for a violation of the policy, he or she faces disciplinary sanctions. Whatever the situation, Ms. Reynolds makes a point of listening and working toward appropriate solutions.
“In the best set of circumstances, both of those parties’ interests are aligned,” she said.
To avoid burnout, Ms. Reynolds draws a sharp line between work and home. Her two children, ages five and two, take up much of her free time, but when she has a free evening she likes to take in stand-up comedy or storytelling shows with her husband, a fellow attorney whom she met at the Manhattan D.A.’s office. She likes classic ’90s R&B music—think TLC—and the occasional dose of escapist television: “I used to watch ‘Law & Order,’ but I don’t anymore.”
Part of the reason for her lost interest might be that she’s over argument for argument’s sake.
“I think it’s just a function of maturity.” she said. “I used to find an argument in everything, including little things like where to put the television remote. Now, I like finding solutions that are less argumentative and more restorative.”