The Flat Hat investigated campus resources and trends surrounding sexual misconduct since 2015. In this article, The Flat Hat analyzes the gap between sexual misconduct reporting and investigations, and contextualizes campus offices and policies designed to support survivors.
At the College of William and Mary, most reported cases of sexual misconduct — which include but are not limited to instances of harassment and assault — are not investigated. Cases are typically categorized as “non-actionable” by the College, limiting the university’s ability to examine them further in an investigation.
The College’s Office of Compliance and Equity processes incidents and reports related to Title IX rights. According to its Title IX data for the past five years, about one-in-five reported sexual harassment cases on average have moved towards an investigation. For reported cases of sexual assault, the average investigation rate is 23 percent.
In the 2018-19 academic year, 115 cases of sexual misconduct were reported to the Office. Of that total, 13 cases were given an investigation and six led to a remedial action for the guilty party, including permanent removal, suspension or probation. While 11 percent of all sexual misconduct cases were given an investigation in 2018-19, on average 21 percent of these cases led to investigations for the past five years.
According to the College’s Title IX Coordinator Pamela Mason, there are three major reasons why Title IX reports can be classified as non-actionable.
“There are primarily three different reasons for “non-actionable” classifications — a) Not enough information – typically in situations where an anonymous or semi-anonymous report is submitted without the details necessary to pursue and complete an investigation, b) No investigation is wanted by the reporting party and the Review Team does not believe there is a continued threat to the university community or c) the university does not have jurisdiction over the respondent, typically a person not affiliated with the university or a person who is no longer affiliated with the university,” Mason said in an email.
Mason said that of the 80 to 85 percent of cases deemed non-actionable by the College, they are evenly divided between the three categories.
Discrepancies between reports and investigations may be intensified by recent updates to Title IX’s national guidelines, which were instituted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos May 6. These revised guidelines established more lenient enforcement and investigations processes, while also pushing greater responsibility on survivors to push for resolution efforts. DeVos’ guidelines allow schools and alleged assailants more leeway throughout the investigative process.
The 2017-18 academic year saw the largest number of sexual harassment cases reported in the five-year data summary. The Office of Equity and Compliance recorded 60 reported cases of sexual harassment — a 50 percent increase in reported cases from the previous year and more than double the number of cases recorded in 2015-16.
Mason attributed the spike in reported cases to changes in university policy in 2016-17. These policy changes included required education and training for faculty and staff. Mason also pointed towards the College’s efforts to hang up informational posters in restroom stalls, which detailed how to file a report of sexual misconduct.
“Multiple factors could have played a role in the increase,” Mason said. “The university began requiring education and training for faculty and staff on a biennial basis. This training covered types of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct prohibited by our policy and mandatory reporting requirements for employees. During this academic year, the informational posters in all restroom stalls on campus were first hung creating more awareness on how and where to make a report. The increase in the number of reports was expected during this time, and we have seen the expected plateau in the number of reports over the last two years.”
The changes in policy were implemented after the College was placed under a Title IX compliance investigation from the Office of Civil Rights in 2014. The College established its Task Force on Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment in fall 2014, which focused on four core responsibilities — campus climate, prevention and education, faculty and staff training and investigation — and issued policy and protocol recommendations in 2015. The Task Force recommended creating the Coordinating Committee for Prevention of Sexual Assault and Harassment, which has worked to support sexual assault survivors and bolster Title IX compliance efforts for the past five years.
A student representative from the Coordinating Committee, Lauren Cohen ’21, explained her role to provide a student’s opinion and what projects the committee has been working on recently.
“It has been a very cool position to have as an undergrad at the College because although I am on the committee as a student representative of Someone You Know, my input is often asked for and considered,” Cohen said in a written statement. “One of the biggest projects we worked on during the fall semester was the Campus Climate Survey. We spent a few meetings organizing and interpreting the results, and looking at changes in the data over the past few years.”
For Healthy Relationship Specialist Lauren Nasstrom ’20 at Health Outreach Peer Educators, the Title IX reporting and investigation process have raised several concerns in regards to outcomes of cases and treatment of survivors.
“I think at the end of the day the Title IX system is deeply flawed and with the new regulations coming out from Betsy DeVos, it’s going to get even more difficult for survivors,” Nasstrom said in a written statement. “The Title IX process is not an easy one, and I think that, alongside the stories we tend to hear on campus about the investigation outcomes usually being negative, is why we see a discrepancy between reporting and actual investigations that occur which is a relatively small number.”
“I think at the end of the day the Title IX system is deeply flawed and with the new regulations coming out from Betsy DeVos, it’s going to get even more difficult for survivors. The Title IX process is not an easy one, and I think that, alongside the stories we tend to hear on campus about the investigation outcomes usually being negative, is why we see a discrepancy between reporting and actual investigations that occur which is a relatively small number.”
When a case is officially reported to the Office of Compliance and Equity as a violation of Title IX, a team made up of representatives from the Office, the Dean of Students Office and the College’s Police Department meets within 72 hours of the official report to assess the nature of the case and to determine if or what mandatory procedures may be necessary by law. This team determines if the case is actionable and then proceeds with an investigation with the support of the reporting party. Trained investigators, who are employees of the Compliance and Equity Office, follow a strict list of guidelines that provide due process for all accountable parties. This process often includes interviews with involved parties and closely works with the Dean of Students Office.
After the Office of Compliance and Equity conducts an official investigation of reported violations, they pass their conclusions to the Dean of Students Office to make the final decision. Investigations often range in length and results depending on the nature of the violation and the parties involved. The Dean of Students Office then decides the appropriate action to take regarding punishment, if a party is deemed liable for the violation.
Once the investigation is completed a primary report is given to all involved parties for review and sent to the Dean of Students Office for the official decision to be made. Depending on that decision, sanctions and punishments are established. After this process, each involved party can appeal the official decision.
While Mason stressed the distinct circumstances surrounding each individual case, she underscored the university’s position that even one case of sexual misconduct is unacceptable.
“We understand it takes tremendous courage for someone to come forward and report any sexual misconduct,” Mason said. “We want to ensure that every member of the campus community can work and learn in an environment in which they can feel and be safe. One student experiencing sexual misconduct in any form is too many. The only acceptable rate is zero.”
In addition to the Office of Compliance and Equity, the College houses several institutions that provide support, advocacy and information for survivors.
Certain groups that are run by the administration differ between their levels of confidentiality and services. Non-confidential bodies include any employee of the university and the Office of Compliance and Equity.
Confidential resources include the Health and Wellness Center, The Haven, and AVALON, an off-campus group that works with survivors of unhealthy relationships and sexual assault. The Haven offers survivors information regarding health and safety, schedule and living adjustments, and emotional support through trained student volunteers.
Outside of administrative institutions on campus, the College holds a number of student organizations that work to spread information regarding healthy relationships and behaviors around campus, and support existing survivors. Health Outreach Peer Educators is student run club that focuses on sexual violence, healthy relationships, and alcohol and drug abuse.
HOPE works with the administration to help lead First Year Experience Orientation programs, and has a number of resources dedicated to uplifting survivors. Along with HOPE, the student organization Someone You Know is dedicated to sexual assault prevention and survivor advocacy by holding a number of events throughout the year to improve the education surrounding sexual violence.
Nasstrom spoke on the involvement of the College’s administration in sexual misconduct cases, and the programs it supports. Nasstrom stated that while these institutions, such as the Office of Compliance and Equity, are made-up of people dedicated to resolving these issues, there are deeper systemic factors that created a negative atmosphere.
“I think that there are some offices that are really committed to supporting survivors and ending sexual assault on our campus, but I think those are also the individuals interacting with and facing these issues on a daily basis,” Nasstrom said in an email. “I think that at the end of the day while most of these administrators are doing everything they can to fight for the rights of survivors, they are still ingrained in a system that is looking out for itself.”
Nasstrom believes it is important for the College’s administration and community to realize that there are multiple ways for survivors to heal from these traumatic experiences. She said reporting shouldn’t be viewed as the only avenue to heal.
“I think too often we get caught up in the notion that everyone needs to report in order to heal and that your role is to support them and lead them to the reporting process, but that isn’t it,” Nasstrom said. “While some may want to report, there are a great amount of individuals that don’t want to and instead want to be supported in a different way.”
“We know that historically incidents of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct have always been under-represented in society in general. William & Mary also faces similar under-reporting.”
Mason shared how the College, and society at large, sees under-reporting in cases involving sexual misconduct. Mason explained how perceptions surrounding sexual misconduct can vary greatly and can negatively affect the system.
“We know that historically incidents of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct have always been underrepresented in society in general,” Mason said. “William & Mary also faces similar under-reporting, and our communication efforts on resources, reporting, and what constitutes sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, relationship violence or sexual exploitation are helping with reporting on campus. However, issues of self-blame for harassment, perceptions that what happened to them was not that serious, and fear of retaliation for making a report are challenges we still need to overcome.”
Director of the Haven Liz Cascone shared improvements that could be made within the system of reporting and investigating at the College and the administration’s handling of these cases.
“I believe W&M is open to feedback and ideas to improve the adjudication of sexual misconduct cases,” Cascone said in an email. “Often students feel like the timeline is very long for an investigation, which can decrease students willingness to participate. To help with context, all federally and state funded universities must create policies and procedures that comply with federal and state laws and guidance. Therefore, there are some limitations on what universities can and cannot do regarding sexual misconduct responses.”
Methods: The Flat Hat analyzed the College’s annual Title IX data on sexual misconduct from the Office of Compliance and Equity. The Office provided The Flat Hat with its annual summaries since the 2015-16 academic year. For more information on the College’s policy on prohibiting sexual misconduct, visit their website here.
Editor’s Note: Data Associate Editor Matt Lowrie contributed reporting.