The other day, over lunch, prompted by an in inevitable conversation about the recent tragedy at Penn State, a colleague lamented their own experiences as a mandatory reporter of sexual assault. The discussion began as we were flushing out possible scenarios with the Penn State case, hoping that perhaps the lack of reporting on behalf of Coach Paterno et al was a lapse of administrative training rather than pure moral abomination. My colleague expressed some sympathies with those encountered by reports of sexual violence and that a similar encounter had left them questioning the efficacy of the current mandatory reporting protocol.
My colleague works at a small liberal arts college in a position that manages student workers. The college requires that all student employees take an hour-long online sexual harassment training, which they administer twice a year. My colleague emailed a notice to their student staff that each of them would have to take this training. In response to the email, a student requested that they be exempt from the training because they had recently experienced a sexual assault and also had a major assignment due the day after the training and did not want to be “re-triggered and stressed out by having to spend an hour thinking about sexual violence.” The student requested anonymity and mentioned that she intentionally did not report the crime to the Student Judicial Board (my colleague made assumption that assault must have been committed by another student because Judicial Board would have been standard course of action).
After getting this information, my colleague was unsure of what the necessary protocol was for reporting. They know they are a mandatory reporter, but were not sure that this fell under the realm of things necessary to report, especially since anonymity was requested and the student was not seeking help. The information they received regarding the assault was extremely limited and the disclosure of the event was not intentional, but rather reactionary – prompted not out of a request for help, but rather to avoid being re-triggered. It is important to note here, that although my colleague is a mandatory reporter, they have had no training on mandatory reporting from the institution they are currently working for. Fortunately they worked in Student Life for another higher education institution where they did receive some training, namely to report up.
My colleague took two steps. She reported the incident to her direct superior and asked if further action was necessary. They said no, no action was necessary because the student asked to remain anonymous. At the same time, however, the staff member e-mailed the schools HR department to see if the student’s request for a training exemption could be honored. My colleague explained the situation to HR in full, however omitting the students identifying details. The HR director responded to her email almost immediately saying that they could definitely accommodate the student and telling my colleague that they needed to report the assault if they had not already done so. My colleague called the HR director at this time and let them know the opposing information they had received from their immediate superior. The HR director admitted that they were, in fact, not positive that they needed to report and suggested they contact the Assistant Dean of Students to give the final decision. After a meeting where the student’s anonymity remained intact, the decision was reached that standard mandatory reporting protocol must take place, and that my colleague should file a paper report and send it up the chain of command.
This would mean that the students anonymity would no longer be intact as a paper report (which requires a name) would have to be filtered through six additional people before it eventually would get back to the Assistant Dean Of Students (who they had just met with and was already briefed on the incident). This was the first time my colleague found out that they would have to file an actual paper report, previously they thought a simple verbal exchange was all that was required. Additionally, they found the report rather confusing and somewhat futile. The definitive categories on the report were misleading and seemingly redundant. Also, the only information my colleague had was limited which meant that the bulk of the report remained blank.
After the report was filed and sent up the chain of command, my colleague was urged to reach out to the student, give her a packet of information on resources and encourage her to report and seek support. My colleague was asked to get the student to fill out a threat assessment with campus security even if she did not want to report in an effort to protect other students. The packet of information and resources seemed particularly helpful and full of information my colleague wished they had known previously so that they could have given the student more helpful information when she first confided in them.
The student didn’t respond to the staff member for several days, even though my colleague had seen her at work and on campus a few times since sending the follow-up email and information. The student responded by thanking them for their concern but said she was doing fine and did not address answering the threat assessment or reporting. My colleague, the staff member, sent the student response back to campus safety and the dean’s office. To date, that is where the case has ended. This case is about a month old, and the above proceedings took place over the course of 8 days from the student confiding in my colleague to her response going to campus safety.
This incident left a very sour taste in my colleague’s mouth, who highlighted several challenges and take homes to reporting on their campus:
- Staff felt really bad about having to “pressure” the student to report.
- Staff was unsure of how much to encourage the student to report and did not appreciate higher up administrators asking them to pressure the student as they did want to disrespect the student by pushing her to do something she was uncomfortable with.
- Staff did not want to breach the confidentiality of the student but wanted to provide the best support possible.
- Staff had lack of training. Even though they are a mandatory reporter, they only received an hour long on-line sexual harassment training but never had a Cleary reporting training or any specific training about mandatory reporting with student employees or about someone who approaches you but is not trying to report.
- Staff found the paper Cleary Report misleading and misrepresentative.
- Staff learned that only health and counseling professionals do not have to report
- Staff disappointed that higher up staff and supervisors were also unclear about the reporting process and could not provide proper guidance.
- Staff wanted to be able to report without sharing the students’ name
In the end this incident enlightened my colleague’s superiors and HR administrators to the fact that their staff lacked sufficient training and that changes need to be made with the overall reporting system. However, the student victim did not receive the anonymity she requested, which might have felt like a violation to her. This incident is by no means a singular occurrence. This and similar situations have been seen time and time again at universities across the country. Higher education staff members are under-equipped to handle sexual violence on their campuses. This is a HUGE problem. College women experience one of the highest risks of sexual violence of any demographic. One in four college women will be assaulted during their time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.4 million students are enrolled in US colleges. If we give a rough estimate that half of these students are female (and this is generous because enrollment tips more heavily towards the female persuasion) then this means that 2.55 million women will be assaulted during their time in college. This is an epidemic and we need to treat it as such. Who is going to be there to support these two and a half million women?
The egregious handling of the Penn State sexual assaults by all parties, although very different from most sexual assaults that happen on our nations campuses, has started conversations about our role in reporting and intervening from the white house to casual luncheons between friends. We need to continue this conversation and keep highlighting the epidemic of sexual violence in our society. Bottom line: Our higher education administrators need training and they need it now. A national effort needs to be made. We need to address this issue from both sides. We need more prevention work on our campuses and we need to encourage our students to demand these types of services on their campuses.