Dean of Students Office removes anonymity option in care reports

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The administrative change was caused by incomplete, student-filed reports to ensure prompt assistance from the Dean of Students office. PHOTO BY / Leslie Davis

As of April 2019, students can no longer submit anonymous care reports online. Students are now required to attach their name to the report accessed by the Dean of Students Office, but they may still choose to remain anonymous to the subject of their care report.

Care reports are a common way in which students report a wide variety of concerns about their peers at the College of William and Mary. The reports address academic, community, personal and residential concerns, and offer students a space to submit a confidential report relating to sexual misconduct or Title IX.

The removal of anonymous reports was partially due to the overwhelming amount of incomplete, anonymous care reports, coupled with the College’s decision to centralize all reporting methods in an effort to make the site easier to navigate.

“In weighing the level of risk associated with accepting anonymous reports through the Care Report portal and our staff’s inability to appropriately respond, it was determined that removing the anonymous reporting option was in the best interests of our students,” Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas said in an email.

“In weighing the level of risk associated with accepting anonymous reports through the Care Report portal and our staff’s inability to appropriately respond, it was determined that removing the anonymous reporting option was in the best interests of our students,” Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas said in an email.

Students may continue filing anonymous reports through different outlets on campus. They can file paper reports in the secured drop box located outside of the Compliance and Equity Office. Alternatively, students can file reports from a non-student email address to maintain anonymity. The William and Mary Police Department also accepts anonymous reports through dispatch, the Tip Line or in person.

According to Thomas, the anonymous option was added roughly two years ago. Before then, and since the launch of care reports in 2012, students had always been required to include their name on reports, while they still retained the option to be avoid being recognized from the report’s subject. The April change was a return to a previously established standard in response to the College’s efforts last fall to centralize all reporting procedures in the development of their “Report Concerns or Violations” webpage.

The web address was centralized to serve as a homepage for all reporting methods, directing students and community members to the different available options to report issues or concerns. The site was consolidated in effort to streamline all types of reports to the appropriate office.

“The university spent almost a year creating a centralized online reporting forum and it provides information on the number of ways that individuals can make reports, including anonymously,” Thomas said in an email.

“The university spent almost a year creating a centralized online reporting forum and it provides information on the number of ways that individuals can make reports, including anonymously,” Thomas said in an email.

Thomas also said the change back to requiring students’ names on care reports largely resulted from a sharp increase of incomplete reports. During the two-year period in which there was an anonymous care report option, she said that there was a large surge in the amount of submitted reports with insufficient information, which often prevented the Dean of Students Office from responding sufficiently.

“But what ended up happening with us though, is when we went to the option of placing the anonymous drop down in our care report, that is overseen by my office, is that we had so many more, a really huge jump, of parties not giving us information about who they are, and that has risks associated with it for us,” Thomas said.

Initially, the anonymous care report option was not frequently used by students. However, Thomas said that within a year, the anonymous choice was the default option for students, making it particularly difficult for the office to follow up with reporters for clarity and additional information.

“There was a combination of not only at times having that insufficient information, but also not giving us specificity around the individual either,” Thomas said. “When there was a combination of those, obviously there is nothing we can do, but even when we received one or the other, it did have a lot of impact on our trying to basically also be detectives almost.”

“There was a combination of not only at times having that insufficient information, but also not giving us specificity around the individual either,” Thomas said. “When there was a combination of those, obviously there is nothing we can do, but even when we received one or the other, it did have a lot of impact on our trying to basically also be detectives almost.”

When there was missing information on the anonymously filed reports, Thomas said that the office would reach an impasse, as there would be no material to expound on if the subject of the report denied that there was a problem. The office had no contacts to follow up with to confirm information.

“A lot of what was happening, was not only, we’re in a situation where the reporting party was anonymous, there was insufficient information many times where we couldn’t intervene,” Thomas said. “Or, the information identified an individual, and there wasn’t enough provided that gave us some more specificity around what they had either observed or experienced. And so, when we did in fact follow up with the party that the concern was shared about, or the disclosure that was made through that system, we’d follow up with that student and they would be like ‘I’m fine; I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

There were instances in which anonymous care reports shared information about high risk, crisis situations. However, the limited information that accompanied these reports prevented timely intervention.

“Many times, the anonymous reports prohibited our staff from supporting students in situations that were being characterized as high risk or crisis that warranted intervention,” Thomas said in an email. “In most cases, merely being able to contact the individual who submitted the report to clarify or expound on the information provided, would have enabled us to intervene or intervene in a more timely manner.”

The fact that other viable anonymous reporting services are available to students also significantly impacted the decision.

“That decision, it wasn’t like some random ‘oh we’re going to shift back to not have an anonymous option,’” Thomas said. “It’s because we knew that there were other portals that also allow for that.”

Since the switch in April, Thomas has noticed a difference in the ability of her staff to respond more efficiently to the reports. She said that the reimplementation of requiring student names on submitted care reports has been critical to her office’s functioning.

“While the anonymous option was compromising our ability and impacting our ability to support students, removing it did not compromise or diminish the ability for someone to maintain their anonymity,” Thomas said. “In terms of our ability to intervene and support students, it’s invaluable.”

The April 2019 change was not publicized to students. Thomas said that policy changes are usually put out for student comment. However, since the Office deemed the change in anonymity as an operational change and not as a policy alteration, it was not sent in an email to students or released for public comment.

The Dean of Students Office has yet to hear student complaints regarding the April change. Thomas wants to hear from students if the change is impacting their care report filing habits and wants to further promote the reporting website as a centralized resource. 

“I hope students have not found it to be a burden, and if they have, I think that it would be helpful to get a sense of why,” Thomas said. “It also tells me what can we do more to ensure that we are highlighting the report website.” 

In terms of addressing potential student concerns about the change, Thomas wants to discuss tangible ways of assuaging student concerns if they feel like the change is affecting their reporting. 

She proposed potentially adopting new marketing strategies that highlight the anonymous options or fostering a dialogue at Student Assembly meetings. 

“If there are students that are having concerns about it, I’d want to talk about that,” Thomas said. “If we need to be marketing the other mechanisms more, than that is just what we have to do. It’s not kind of some loss essentially, there is still an opportunity to do that, but I definitely don’t want students feeling like because it is not in the care report option, that ‘issues and concerns’ link, that all of the sudden you don’t have a mechanism to do that. But if they are feeling that way, how do we address it.” 

Since 2017, the total amount of filed care reports has plateaued around 1,900 reports annually from July 1 through June 30 each academic year. 

Thomas attributed increases in the 2015 and 2017 to strong outreach efforts by faculty, staff and students. Thomas said that the Dean of Students Office is closely monitoring the data to assess any impact from the recent change.

While some students recognize the rationale behind the change, some are still unsure about being required to divulge their name to the Dean of Students Office. 

“I understand why the school feels that they need to do it, and I think it is good that you can still choose to not be identified to the subject of the report, because I think that that is a lot of people’s main concern when filing a care report — is that the person they are filing could find out and get mad at them, especially if you’re close,” Kathleen Shannon ’21 said. “I don’t love the idea of being forced to give your identity to the school in that way, and forever having that your name being on a file that way. And I think the school already has a lot, a lot, a lot of personal information on all of us. I understand why in certain cases it could be necessary, but I value my privacy and I don’t know if I am 100 percent comfortable with it. I don’t think it will stop me from making a care report, if I am truly, truly concerned about someone, but it might make me think twice.” 

Others feel that the alternative anonymous report options are more cumbersome than the former care report portal option, as care reports are widely known and promoted on campus. Kathryne King ’22 worries that the amount of reports could decrease due to students’ unfamiliarity with other resources, and that their attempts to remain anonymous would ultimately undermine their reporting capabilities. 

“I feel like the big issue with that is a lot of the other ways to file a report anonymously are, maybe not more effort, but do require a little bit more of proactive action,” King said. “You have to go and do something about it. Where care report is so easy, so simple, and it is something that is very widely, not distributed at our school, but it’s talked about a lot. People know what care reports are and people know how to get there, especially with orientation. It is branded as like ‘this is what our school does to help our students.’ And I think there could definitely be a decrease in the number of care reports seen, if people feel uncomfortable attaching their name to that report. I understand the university’s thought behind it, but I also don’t want people to go without care or go without seeing someone, or at least given their options just because it’s harder for the university to track down people.” 

Noting that the policy alteration was not publicly announced to the student body, King said that she was not aware of the care report form’s recent changes. 

“It is interesting that this was a change because that was something that also wasn’t advertised and wasn’t really discussed,” King said. “I haven’t submitted a care report since the change and would not have known that that wasn’t an option until now.” 

King said that the change should have been explained to students, as now students may find it surprising to not see the anonymous option on the care report form and could be deterred from submitting the report. 

“It might make people think twice about sending in a care report which is not something we want to happen,” King said. “That’s not what the university wants to see.”