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AN INDEPENDENT STUDENT NEWSPAPER SERVING THE GW COMMUNITY SINCE 1904

The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Rachel Furlow: Universities should limit mandatory sexual assault reporting policies

Rachel Furlow, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

Some universities across the country are facing controversy over an important part of their sexual assault and harassment policies: mandatory reporting.

Mandatory reporting, in its most conservative interpretation, requires all staff and faculty members that university administrators deem “responsible employees” to report any allegations of sexual assault from students or fellow employees to law enforcement officials. GW currently does not require all employees to report allegations, just staff and faculty who also hold administrative positions. However, with GW facing at least two accusations of Title IX negligence in the past five years, officials could possibly consider a change to make the University less liable for negligence in responding to sexual assault.

Because sexual assault is currently one of the most underreported crimes, especially on campuses, it is admirable that university officials across the country are attempting to increase reporting rates to deal with the problem. But mandatory reporting does not address the larger problem of sexual assault on campuses. Instituting mandatory reporting policies could discourage survivors from sharing their experiences with faculty or staff members whom they trust.

Survivors of college sexual assault may not choose to report their assaults to law enforcement officials for a variety of reasons: Forty-two percent of survivors said they simply did not want anyone to know, and 39 percent said they specifically they did not want family members to know about the incident, according to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013. And 20 percent of survivors said they chose not to report for fear of reprisal.

Aside from statistics, what has most impacted me is hearing my friends tell stories about their own experiences with sexual violence. They knew there were benefits to reporting, like access to legal counsel and an official course of action to seek justice. And some of my friends did choose to voluntarily report. But I have also sat with friends mired in impossible personal situations who realized that the costs of reporting assault outweighed the benefits.

University policies should protect those students by allowing them the freedom to confide in someone they trust, whoever that may be, without fear of their confidant reporting the assault to someone else within the university.

University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt wrote in an email that faculty who are mandatory reporters include “provosts, associate provosts, deans, associate deans, department chairs and other faculty members who have responsibilities within a school’s dean office or GW’s central administrative offices.”

But even requiring that group of faculty to report sexual assault to the police is not in some survivors’ best interests. Mandatory reporting policies make the dangerous assumption that law enforcement is the best option for survivors, when it may not be their preference. If a survivor cannot speak to a faculty member or a resident adviser without the worry that it will cause the situation to leave their control, they will be less likely to have that conversation at all.

In 2011, a “Dear Colleagues” letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights warned institutions to improve their policies on sexual assault, lest they lose their federal funding, leaving universities to broaden their definitions of a “responsible employee.” But the policies resulting from this mandate have been criticized.

Survivor advocacy groups called for government officials to halt the new policy, saying the policy could make survivors less likely to report sexual assaults to faculty and staff members they trust at their universities and even make it difficult for universities to comply with existing federal laws that allow survivors the option to not notify law enforcement.

It seems like the main goal of mandatory reporting is to protect institutional liability rather than to do what is in the best interest of survivors. If almost every staff member at a university is required to report allegations of sexual assault, then a university would be less likely to face allegations of negligence. In a recent Huffington Post report, former federal prosecutor Shanlon Wu said mandatory reporting policies shift the burden to designated faculty members who are required to report.

“The school could point to its policy if no action were taken because a required reporter had failed to inform the designated office about an allegation of sexual assault,” Wu said.

So, by implementing mandatory reporting, universities are implementing a system through which to pass the blame, rather than to actually help survivors.

If university officials really wanted to help survivors of sexual assault and increase reporting rates, they would address the root of the problem and would focus their resources on working to properly prosecute cases that students have voluntarily reported. For survivors, sexual assault is a theft of control, and the last vestige of control they retain is if, when and to whom they tell their stories. I urge GW to not let mandatory reporting take this power away.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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