The wrong kind of mandate

Mandated reporting policies undermine the autonomy of sexual assault survivors

University President Teresa Sullivan sent an email Tuesday announcing a new policy which will require all faculty and staff to report incidents of sexual misconduct to Title IX Coordinator Darlene Scott-Scurry. A student cannot request that her disclosure to a faculty member be kept confidential unless she is speaking to a “Confidential Employee” — a counselor or a nurse — though she can request that no investigation be opened.

We understand the intent of the policy. Because sexual assault can be a taboo subject, it may be tempting for staff members to not do anything about it. Getting involved with a sexual misconduct case can be messy, and this policy is presumably designed to create accountability for staff members who want to ignore these issues simply because ignoring them would make their lives easier. The policy also aims to create a kind of collective responsibility, where everyone in the community bears the burden of dealing with the issue of sexual assault.

But though the policy is well-intentioned, it has the potential to create more trauma for survivors. The policy assumes that reporting is always better than not reporting. And it is true that reporting is a crucial step in reprimanding perpetrators, which then makes the University community safer and gives the survivor peace of mind, if the punishment is adequate. But some survivors simply are not ready to report. To juggle an emotional recovery along with a formal complaint and/or investigation can be too much to handle. Reporting can be a way for a survivor to regain power and control at a time in her life when she feels it has been taken from her. But a mandated reporting policy could actually prevent her from regaining that control, forcing her to take a step which she is not ready for.

While it is more likely a survivor will first disclose an assault to a “Confidential Employee” like a nurse or a counselor, there is still the possibility that the first person a student feels comfortable going to is a professor, or perhaps an academic advisor. If the student is unaware of the mandated reporter policy, she may feel betrayed if her confidant refuses to honor her request for confidentiality under legal obligation. The policy may force a confidant to choose between loyalty to an advisee and obligation to comply with procedure.

And if a student does know about the mandated reporting policy, she may be discouraged from turning to her first choice for help. While there are a multitude of resources available to her which do guarantee confidentiality, taking the extra step to find an alternative to her first instinct can be a strenuous or even impossible task.

Survivors may want to share their experiences with professors for reasons other than emotional support. They may suffer from PTSD because of sexual trauma, and ask to be given warning about material in the class which may trigger panic attacks. Additionally, a survivor may want to disclose her assault to a professor or teaching assistant if she needs an extension on an assignment or an exam because of the trauma she has suffered. These circumstances of disclosure do not come with an automatic assumption that a survivor is ready to report her assault to formal authorities. If she is deterred from talking to a professor because of this policy, her educational experience could suffer from it.

While a reporter can pass along a survivor’s request that no investigation be opened, even the prospect of an additional person knowing about the trauma could make the survivor feel uncomfortable. And on top of that, her request for no investigation can be overridden by a three member Evaluation Panel. Presumably, this request would be overridden if the Panel believes the student is in danger, or if the larger community is in danger because the perpetrator might be a repeat offender. This is an understandable concern, but the autonomy of survivors should still be prioritized. Opening a formal investigation should not be compulsory; it should be a survivor’s choice. This ensures that she retains the power and that the system works for her, not that the system has all the power, and she is merely a component of its operation.

We don’t want a University community where faculty and staff brush sexual assault under the rug when they are asked for help. But we also don’t want a community in which the autonomy of survivors is undermined and they distrust the system because of it. More reporting will hopefully occur with increased informal support for survivors, to raise their confidence that people will believe their stories, and to reduce the shame they too often feel. We do not want them to hide, but when they do come forward it should be on their own terms, when they are ready to leave behind the doubt that keeps them silent — ready to speak with the intention of being heard.

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