Required Supporting Instead of Required Reporting: Responding Well to Disclosures of Campus Sexual Violence

12/01/2016 10:07 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2016
…[T]those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless. . . (Rushdie)

On 25 April 2016 I wrote here about my opposition to compelling university faculty to override a student’s request for privacy by reporting to university officials a disclosure of sexual violence. I explained that respecting the survivor’s wishes, privacy, and autonomy was essential to supporting survivors and also fulfilling core faculty duties. I observed that sexual violence involves taking away autonomy and that any further intrusion on autonomy is at high risk of compounding the harm.

This essay is a follow-up to that April 2016 entry. In the months since April, I have been active on my own campus helping draft a reporting policy that does not require widespread required reporting. In addition I collaborated with two colleagues at another university to draft a review article that is now under review at a scholarly journal.

These projects have included extensive reading of research and policy and also talking to many colleagues and students on my own campus and around the country. After all this, I remain firmly opposed to required reporting of sexual violence disclosure. I am opposed on both ethical and practical grounds to compelled reporting without the consent of the adult survivor.

Basic Human Rights Must Be Respected

Compelled reporting is a violation of basic adult rights to privacy and autonomy; removing autonomy is particularly harmful to survivors (as we know from social science research); and requiring compelled reporting is fundamentally counter to academic freedom, learning, and equal access to education (and is thus a civil rights violation). Required reporting is often in practice a form of compelled betrayal and research indicates that both interpersonal and institutional betrayal causes harm.

Interventions Should be Safe and Effective

Safety and effectiveness are usually considered the two primary elements of evaluating an intervention. Required reporting has not been demonstrated to be either safe or effective.

There is no evidence of which I am aware that compelled reporting is effective at achieving stated goals of helping survivors heal or in preventing further campus sexual violence. To the extent that researchers have data regarding the impact of reporting regimes on behavior, they find that required reporting tends to chill reporting overall and to discourage engagement with the system going forward once there has been a privacy violation.

Furthermore there is indication it is not safe. Research indicates that one of the most damaging responses to a disclosure of sexual violence is to take away the agency of the victim. One potent way that damage occurs is to assume control over the story and information.

In other words, compelled disclosure will likely chill reporting on campus and cause harm to those whose autonomy is violated. In the meantime, there are good approaches available to encouraging voluntary -- and institutionally accountable -- reporting.

Resist Reporting Theatre

Accountability is indeed very important: currently many universities appear to have a kind of Reporting Theatre in which policies compel reporting but then many reports are actually buried. Our policy requires that employees report to the university if that is what the student/survivor requests. In addition, I advocate the use of third party (and non-profit) information escrow systems (such as Callisto) that allow student/survivors to store information and report it if and when they are ready (including as a function of learning there was another victim of the same perpetrator). We can and we must have liberation on all fronts: liberation from sexual violence and liberation from attempts to crush academic freedom or deny survivors autonomy.

I ended my 25 April 2016 post this way:

This is Really Very Simple
The bottom line is this:  we do not need to choose between ending violence and supporting freedom of speech, liberty, and privacy.  In fact, ending sexual violence is about respecting freedom, liberty, and privacy.
And sure, there will be some exceptions to a survivor-lead reporting policy.  There are always exceptions, such as when there is imminent danger to self or other or there is information regarding the abuse of a minor.  But most of the reports of sexual violence on campus do not meet these conditions. 
Here is how it should work for trusted faculty and teachers:
(1)    Our duty as faculty members is to our students.
(2)    If a student wants a report to move forward then it must move forward. 
(3)    If a student wants confidentiality then we must provide it.
(4)    Harm comes from not respecting the rights and autonomy of individuals.
Adopting policies guided by these principles with help stop sexual violence.  We can do this by respecting survivor freedom and dignity. 

The Policy Story on My Own Campus

I wrote that post just a few weeks before my own institution, the University of Oregon, considered a proposed reporting policy that would have made all employees required reporters of disclosures of sexual violence. As a UO Senator myself, I argued strongly against that proposed policy and voted against it when it came to the floor of the UO Senate for a vote in May 2016.

The proposed required reporting policy was voted down by the UO Senate by one vote. After that the UO administration enacted a version of that policy on a temporary “emergency” basis and in the meantime the UO Senate convened a Working Group to craft a new proposed policy. I was appointed to that Working Group and together with a small number of faculty, students, and staff worked through the late summer and fall to create a new proposed policy. Our meetings were open to observers and reporters. Some of our colleagues came to our meetings with excellent suggestions. We also consulted extensively with stake holders and we held two campus-wide town halls as we were drafting the policy. In November 2016 we brought our new proposed reporting policy to the University of Oregon Senate.

On 16 November 2016, there was unanimous support by the University of Oregon Senate for our new proposed reporting policy — a proposed policy that would not make most employees mandatory reporters but instead would obligate them to provide information, support the students and follow the wishes of the survivor/student. We hope this policy will be accepted by the university administration.

A Policy Approach for the Nation: Required Supporting Rather than Required Reporting

We also hope this policy will serve as a model for other campuses and organizations -- one in which we shift the focus from required reporting to required supporting.

I stand by what I wrote here in April:

(1)    Our duty as faculty members is to our students.

(2)    If a student wants a report to move forward then it must move forward. 

(3)    If a student wants confidentiality then we must provide it.

(4)    Harm comes from not respecting the rights and autonomy of individuals.

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