It’s time to examine a new aspect of sexual assault policies: reporting options and instructions.
Reporting a sexual assault is often overwhelming, confusing, intimidating, nerve-racking and a whole host of other things. There are plenty of barriers, both physical and emotional, that a survivor may face when considering reporting. Unfortunately, college campuses frequently contribute to the confusion by not providing clear reporting options and instructions. It is important that schools explicitly lay out all the options a student has (whatever those options may be) while empowering students to make their own choices about how to proceed after an assault.
First, it’s important to establish some basic ideas and definitions. Students who have been sexually assaulted often have the choice to file anonymously so as to not reveal their identities. This can consist of filling out a form, either on paper or online, to give the student the chance to be heard and time to decide what course of action to take. All submissions will be kept confidential, but this type of reporting allows for the crime to be counted in the campus crime statistics. Some universities state that in the event that specific information is disclosed in this report (like names or locations that reveal the identity of the involved parties), the school has an obligation to investigate if it threatens the safety of the campus community. Anonymous reporting, however, can limit the school’s ability to conduct an effective investigation. The good thing for survivors is that an anonymous report does not limit the option to pursue judicial or legal action at a future date.
Confidential reporting is a bit trickier in that it can consist of those communications that legally cannot be disclosed to anybody else with the consent of the survivor (barring imminent threat of danger to self or others). An example of this would be talking to the school counseling staff (psychiatrists, psychologists) or health service staff. This isn’t the only kind of confidential reporting—sometimes, it includes communications that will not be disclosed except on a need-to-know basis. This type of reporting balances the desires of the student bringing forward the report with the safety of the campus. Necessary steps and disciplinary measures can be taken in order to protect the community in the most confidential way possible. Examples of confidential sources would be university police, faculty or staff.
There’s a lot of different models out there of how schools give students access to reporting options, so it seems most productive to just go through some examples. Let’s start with Bowdoin College. In its policy, under procedural options, it discusses confidentiality:
The College will investigate and attempt to resolve a report of Sexual Assault and/or Sexual Misconduct. The College recognizes that a Complainant may desire confidentiality and may request that the College not investigate or pursue resolution of a report. In such cases the request must be in writing and include a waiver of investigation, and the College will maintain confidentiality to the extent permitted by law. However, the College reserves the right to investigate and pursue resolution of a report when it is deemed necessary to protect the interests of the College community.
The best part about this statement is the understanding that a student may not want to pursue further action with a report—it recognizes the individual choices a survivor can make. Bowdoin does a pretty decent job of laying out a student’s options but fails to mention anything about anonymous reporting. When I googled “Bowdoin anonymous report,” however, the first thing that comes up is a document titled, “Safe Space Form for the Anonymous Report of Sexual Assault and Harassment.” It’s quite a detailed form, full of on and off-campus resources and assistance for survivors, so it’s a real shame that a student looking at the policy would have no idea that such a form exists. The really confusing thing is that apparently Bowdoin has two (!) anonymous reporting forms. The next document that comes up on Google is titled, “Anonymous Report Form for Sexual Assault and Misconduct.” This form also seems to include relationship violence because it has a section where students can mark the offender’s relationship to the survivor. In addition, for this form, the reporter does not have to be the same as the survivor, so someone could fill out this form on behalf of another person. While I truly appreciate the fact that Bowdoin has so many resources in place, the way they give students access to these resources is extremely confusing. These forms need to be linked to their policy so a student would not have to Google “anonymous report” to find them, and having two forms further obscures the whole process!
Similar to Bowdoin, the College of St. Scholastica states the reporting options and even goes into detail about each. Students have three reporting options: making an anonymous report, making a formal report within the College, or reporting to the police. Somehow, the details do not link to the anonymous report form that can be submitted online (which is right here!) The form is good—it defines confidential and anonymous right at the top after stating the purpose of the filling out the form and also asks explicitly if offender is or was a partner of the survivor. It just doesn’t make sense that St. Scholastica would not have their students be able to access the form from the policy.
A couple other good examples of schools that do a good job of explaining options are Occidental College, which has a section labeled “File a Sexual Assault Report,” and Case Western Reserve University, which also has a “Reporting” section. What is great is that both of these schools link to their anonymous reporting forms so students have easy access. Take a look at Case Western’s reporting map for students:
Looking at another example, I’m a bit confused by Union College, which seems to have a lot of resources and options but is not streamlined. I’ve found probably 10 different webpages where reporting options are listed, some are detailed, others are very vague. There is a Reporting Options page, which looks promising. One good thing is that it allows the survivor to feel in control by saying, “Union’s Administrations believe you as victim should be in charge of how you proceed.” You would think by the title that this page would list all options available to students, but it makes no mention of anonymous reports. I know for a fact, however, that Union does have anonymous reporting because on one of those 10 pages, it talks about it! It says:
Union College permits victims or witnesses to report crimes to CSAs on a voluntary, anonymous basis (and includes such anonymous reports in reported crime totals) but encourages individuals who report crime to provide identifying information. The purpose of this type of report is to comply with the reporting party’s wish to keep the matter anonymous while taking steps to contribute to future campus safety. With such data, the College expects to gather more accurate records of the number of incidents and determine if there is a pattern of crime with regard to a particular location, method, or offender and, as appropriate, alert the community to potential danger. The Campus Safety Department, unless otherwise prescribed by law, does not take anonymous police reports.
There is the form people can download for anonymous reporting, but at the top of the form, it says “Confidential Sexual Assault Report Form.” Very confusing. Also, the form is poorly laid out, giving people just about no space to write anything! There are some instructions at the bottom, which are good, except that they say this form is to be filled out by a third party, not in the presence of a survivor. I can’t find any other form for anonymous reporting, so I’m at a loss when it comes to how a survivor can fill out an anonymous report (which, according to the above paragraph, is encouraged). There seems to be a whole lot of overlooked holes here. Imagine if you were recently assaulted and trying to figure out how to navigate the system at this school.
Albion College provides us with an example of a bad anonymous reporting form. First, there are only 4 boxes for someone to fill out, which gives very little information to the school and very little guidance for someone filling out the form. In addition, it says, “No record of this report will be created or stored.” So what happens to it? What’s the point of filling out the form if it goes into the depths of cyberspace where apparently no one will read it because the information was never sent anywhere? If Albion wants its students to fill out this form, it has to at least give them a good reason.
From everything we’ve seen so far, it’s evident that every school has different reporting options and different ways of presenting those options, but a few things are quite clear. Schools must empower students to make their own choices about what course of action to pursue. Survivors should feel that they have knowledge of and access to all the resources available to them so they can remain in control of any process. These options should be laid out clearly and in one place to minimize confusion. When students disclose information about the incident, they should know who is bound by law to keep it confidential and what can initiate a campus or police investigation. While it’s true that colleges and universities have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their campuses, they must do that while respecting the desires of the reporting individual. Since most schools claim that they want to help students as much as possible in dealing with sexual assault, every school needs to take the initiative to make its sexual assault reporting policy transparent and comprehensive as part of their responsibility to survivors.