It’s time to shed some light on why the outcome is so bleak for those courageous enough to come forward and report acts of sexual violence. Apart from Hollywood and the recent #MeToo movement, one of the most highly criticized areas when it comes to sexual assault allegations is higher education.
What many people don’t realize is the level of confidentiality surrounding Title IX cases and reports. Most colleges and universities have what are called “mandatory reporters” and “confidential resources”. Confidential resources are those designated by the college to have immunity from filing incident reports, so students typically feel more comfortable going to these people when they are embarrassed, confused, or conflicted about what to do next. The majority of faculty and staff are mandatory reporters, which means they are required to file a report when a student displays concerning behavior or reveals they are a survivor of sexual assault.
Once a mandatory reporter is told something of this nature from a student, it is cause for the college to be placed on notice per Title IX. In other words, telling a professor or any staff member about an occurrence of sexual violence legally means the school has been made aware. Under the Obama-era legislation “Dear Colleague” letter, once a school knows or reasonably should know of possible sexual violence, they have sixty days to complete an investigation.
Reports go directly and urgently to a Title IX coordinator. Due to the way the process is structured to protect the reporting party, the mandatory reporter will not have any further involvement and will not be notified as the process unfolds. This can be difficult on the survivor, because they may feel as though the person they trusted and confided in no longer cares or wishes to help them. In reality, the reporter is simply left in the dark to worry about the student from afar.
The goal of the process is to give survivors back as much power as possible moving forward by making decisions. It is very easy for survivors to call the shots by asking questions about the development of the investigation and providing as much information as possible. If the reporting party does not wish to proceed, institutions are still required to investigate and take reasonable action in response to the information provided. If they do wish to proceed and file charges against an assailant, the Title IX Coordinator forwards the complaint and summary information to the appropriate outside attorney investigator for formal investigation.
This is where things start getting tricky. Certain reporting rules have recently been tossed in an effort to “give colleges more freedom to balance the rights of accused students with the need to crack down on serious misconduct.” [NY Times] Now, colleges must merely be “reasonably prompt” with their investigations, which allows time for a more thorough process, in theory. This also means the process can be more drawn out and potentially cause unnecessary stress to the reporting party.
We already know the consequences for those accused of sexual assault are historically nothing more than a slap on the wrist and 15-minutes of bad publicity [See Amanda’s article about the Ramifications of College Campus Sexual Assaults]. The good news is, there are currently lots of powerful women and men working to change this. Now, what can the rest of us do?
While many survivors still choose not to take legal action against a perpetrator, the larger issue is providing support to those who come forward for help. The mental and emotional ramifications are very real and long-lasting, especially for those who feel unheard and alone. We must work to support survivors as we encounter them in our own lives and encourage them to seek help. We must believe them, confirm it is not their fault, and make them really feel they are not alone.