Should staff be required to report student accounts of sexual assault?

Say students deserve a 'confidential source'

Professors say they are concerned about a growing trend among colleges of requiring staff and faculty to report accounts of sexual assault to administrators, Colleen Flaherty reports for Inside Higher Ed.

They argue that students will be more hesitant to come forward if they know that professors and staff members are required to divulge reports to administrators, who might launch more formal investigations and alert external authorities.

On-campus advocates of the new requirements argue that if students are willing to talk about their assault, they are willing to report it. But others disagree.

Helping victims feel ready to file a report is generally a longer process, says Catherine MacGillivray, associate professor and director of women's and gender studies at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Her school recently adopted a policy that mandates all university employees must "promptly report" accusations to the Title IX office.

"Do we respect the students' wishes and thereby jeopardize ourselves?" she wonders. "We shouldn’t have to make that kind of choice."

Establishing anonymous sexual assault reporting

While most faculty agree imminent threats should be reported immediately, they hesitate when it comes to an attack that already took place, instead preferring to let the victim decide if and when to file a report. Students may reveal such an event during one-on-one conversations or even in related classroom discussions.

"Some students may feel they cannot talk about an incident for fear of losing control," says Sandra Caron, University of Maine (UMaine) at Orono professor of family relations and human sexuality. It also may create "a chilling effect on the classroom in terms of class discussions or the things a student might write about, as well as the things a student might come to see their professor about," she says.

Rise of the mandates

The policies have gained popularity as administrators try to "bridge" sexual violence and discrimination regulations, mainly the Clery Act (regulating crime statistics and reporting) and Title IX, which both require different authorities to report sexual assaults.

"If everybody's a mandated reporter, it simplifies who's who, and it simplifies the training," says Brett Sokolow, president and CEO of NCHERM Group, a higher education risk management advising firm.

UMaine spokesperson Dan Demeritt says the system implemented such a policy "to optimally create a culture of student safety, care, and development."

But a 2013 American Association of University Professors report recommended that only faculty serving in a legally mandated reporter role should be as named mandated reporters.

Alerting students to the change

Once the policy is in place, students must be made aware of the regulation change. Stopping a student mid-sentence to tell them can be insensitive and awkward, MacGillivray tells Inside Higher Ed.

"If a student comes to us and, because of the level of distress, begins pouring out their experience, it's not the time... to say, 'Stop, wait a minute, I'm a mandated reporter,'" she adds.

After adopting a new system-wide policy, the UMaine at Orono administrators asked faculty and TAs to include notes on their syllabuses that they now all qualify as mandated reporters. The policy requires faculty to disclose all details to the administration, but allows them to include the student's request for confidentiality—although the university may not honor it.

While professors and assistants obliged and say they want students to make an "informed choice" about sharing their attack experiences, some still find the policy problematic, according to Inside Higher Ed.

"It doesn't deal with student advocacy," says Robert Milardo, an UMaine family relations professor, adding that students need a "confidential source they can go to."

If students do want to share their experience, but not report it, UMaine's policy recommends faculty direct students to an off-campus rape crisis center or the on-campus counseling center (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 2/4).

The takeaway: New policies that require all faculty members to report instances of sexual assault have professors worried that students may stop coming forward.

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