Title IX: Mandatory reporting and mismanagement
In the past year, sexual harassment has made headlines.
Brooklyn politician Vito Lopez is currently being investigated for fondling two interns. Former assistant coach at the Pennsylvania State University Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted 10 young boys over the course of 15 years, during which senior university officials took no action to protect the victims. Bishop Robert W. Finn became the first bishop convicted of protecting a pedophile priest in Kansas City, receiving two years of court-supervised probation.
Amidst this backdrop, a number of institutions have revisited their policies on sexual harassment and who is held accountable for reporting instances of sexual harassment.
Before the start of this school year, university departments of human resources across the nation received guidance from the Office of Civil Rights, a unit of the Department of Education, clarifying the sexual harassment policies detailed in the federal regulation of Title IX. The reformed policy, which can be found on the Wash. U. Department of Human Resources’ website, expanded the definition of sexual harassment to include sexual violence, which can refer to rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion.
With this change in policy, Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Ann Prenatt saw an opportunity to expand outreach to the campus community. According to the American Association of University Women, more than 60 percent of male and female college students report having been sexually harassed at their university, but 10 percent or less of college students attempt to report instances of sexual harassment.
Efforts to reduce harassment are taking many forms. Aside from widespread communication about the updated policy through emails and training sessions, the University placed a new emphasis on state regulations of mandatory reporting.
A mandatory reporter is someone, such as a school official, who has frequent contact with minors and therefore a legal responsibility to report instances of maltreatment of a minor. The terminology has recently attracted attention after allegations that a number of Penn State officials neglected to fulfill their responsibilities as mandatory reporters after being notified of sexual harassment claims.
“The way [Wash. U.] has defined the obligation for individuals who are notified of a [sexual harassment] problem is that they are called ‘responsible employees,’” Prenatt said. “A responsible employee is most anyone that a student might think of as being in a position of authority. So it could be someone like me who happens to work in a department and, you know, someone would come to me with something that happened, and I’d have an obligation to take action. It could be a supervisor in a school. Or it could be a faculty member in a school. It isn’t quite as simple as ‘It’s these five people.’”
Although the language may differ, Prenatt stressed that responsible employees and mandatory reporters share similar duties.
“In the end, the responsibilities are not that different,” Prenatt said. “It’s just that one refers more to the abuse of a minor, and the other is about a community that frankly could include minors.”
While the distinction of responsible employee may be more applicable to student employees who are often engaging with non-minors, the majority of Wash. U. students who receive sexual harassment training, specifically resident advisers (RAs) and teaching assistants (TAs), were told that they are mandatory reporters, responsible for reporting claims of sexual harassment by students of any age—minor or non-minor. In the University context, this mandatory reporter term encompasses the duties of responsible employees.
In addition to the ambiguity of the language, the definition of who fulfills a role as a mandatory reporter is inconsistent. Although RAs and TAs have received extensive training on Title IX and their position on campus as mandatory reporters, other student employees are unsure of their responsibilities.
“I can’t give you the kind of specific answer that you want because I don’t know what there is to know about all the jobs [on campus], but generally if you think about persons with supervisory responsibility, they can always be thought of as being in a position where they have a responsibility to report,” Prenatt said. “Just simply being an employee, especially a student employee, it isn’t a given that they have to report.”
When pressed about who specifically would be considered a mandatory reporter, Prenatt recognized there remain many gray areas that the Department of Human Resources is working to clarify. In the state of Missouri, it is considered a class A misdemeanor for a mandatory reporter to fail to fulfill his duty, and for those unsure of their role, misinterpretations could lead to legal consequences.
Junior Ignacio Ampuero said that sexual harassment trainings differed significantly in his jobs as a TA and as an employee at the Edison Theatre Box Office. In his position as a TA, it is clear that he is considered a mandatory reporter. However, even after asking an authority figure at Edison Theatre, Ampuero said it remains unclear whether his duty as a mandatory reporter applies in this role.
“Regardless of if you agree with the [mandatory reporting] policy or not, if you are an employee and you are under that policy, it carries so much weight that… it cannot be taken lightly,” Ampuero said. “So if there are people on campus who are mandatory reporter employees and do not know, this isn’t something that you can just say, ‘Oh my bad,’ because it is a legal matter. It’s not really fair to the employees if they are not told their role.”
If student employees are unsure of their roles as mandatory reporters, then students cannot be sure of whom they can rely on as confidential sources. Freshman Tori Crnkovich said she does not recall being notified that her RAs are mandatory reporters.
“I probably would have thought that they were confidential, even though it makes sense that they’re not,” Crnkovich said. “I can see why they wouldn’t advertise it because I think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t go to the RAs as much because people are afraid of reporting things.”
Senior and RA Taleef Khan hopes that the mandatory reporting policy has the opposite effect. Khan said that his role as a “mandatory reporter” was made extremely clear during RA training and that he believes the policy is beneficial overall to those involved.
“It helps that [RAs] are not alone when we deal with it because I feel like if a resident were to come say to me there was an incident of rape or sexual assault, that’s something I really wouldn’t have a clue to handle outside of asking, ‘Do you feel safe,’ and then comforting the resident,” Khan said.
RAs as well as others who receive sexual harassment training are taught to direct students toward campus resources such as S.A.R.A.H., Uncle Joe’s and Assistant Director of Health Promotion and Wellness Kim Webb, which are confidential and may be able to offer better guidance. Khan hopes that his role as a mandatory reporter does not discourage students from approaching RAs about sexual harassment issues and that the language of mandatory reporting may be part of the problem.
“Mandatory reporting may sound like a scary thing, but at the end of the day, it’s only around to help the victim,” Khan explained. “Only the most important people of the University hear of such cases in order to help the victim out as much as possible. I think when we hear non-confidential, we immediately think everyone is going to find out or somehow strangers will know, but it’s only the University officials who have the authority and can help in some way.”
Associate Dean of Students Jill Stratton, who is also involved in RA training, shared a similar view. She emphasized the good intentions behind mandatory reporting and stressed not to get lost in the language.
“When you talk about the legality of it all, it becomes very overwhelming and intimidating to people,” Stratton said. “But when you talk about the humanity of it all, [we say] the reason we want you to share this info with the RCD [Residential College Director] is because we want to make sure the student gets help. Are we legally bound to do that according to Title IX? Yes, we are, but that’s not what we emphasize in the training, and it really comes back to helping the students.”
The Department of Human Resources will continue to spread sexual harassment policies throughout the Wash. U. community. Prenatt said that the department remains involved in an ongoing process of refining how sexual harassment is understood on campus and the roles that students and student employees serve. However, as the student body continues to filter through the school each year, Prenatt recognized the difficulty of achieving campus-wide consistency.
“It’s a changing population. You come, you stay for a while, you graduate, you move on,” Prenatt said. “There’s always new people joining the organization either from a student perspective or an employment perspective, and you know there is always going to be a population of people who has to catch up, and we are not going to reach them as soon they hit the door.”