Responding to Sexual Assault

Campus policy requires employees to report alleged student incidents

Policy requires employees to report any sexual misconduct among students.
Policy requires employees to report any sexual misconduct among students.

Meghan stops by her professor's office to explain why she hasn't been in class.  She tells the professor she needs to talk to someone and share something "really personal." She then breaks down in tears and tells the professor she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance who is another Duke student.  When Meghan leaves, she pleads with the professor to keep their conversation confidential while she works through her situation. Can the professor keep the conversation confidential?

The answer, say Duke officials, is no, that when Duke employees hear of a student having been sexually assaulted, they need to report it.

In the wake of recent national headlines, universities across the country have been reminded of the importance of reporting allegations of sexual assault. At Duke, it's a matter of policy when it comes to the university's own student body.

Under the policy Duke adopted two years ago, if a student tells an employee about a sexual assault, the employee may not treat the conversation as confidential. "If you're aware of a Duke student alleged to have been a victim of gender violence, you must report it," said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs.

The policy applies to nearly all of Duke's 34,000 employees, everyone from professors to housekeepers.  Special rules apply under North Carolina law to licensed counselors, clergy and medical personnel.

Here's how it works: A student about to confide in a Duke employee about a sexual assault should understand that the information will need to be reported, regardless of the student's preference. Ideally, the employee will offer to continue listening-although without a promise of confidentiality-or the employee will refer the student to a counselor with whom the student can speak in confidence.

If the student does report a sexual assault, the employee must notify a supervisor or campus police, or submit the information through a website. The information then makes its way to the Office of Student Conduct, which determines the appropriate action to take.

Sheila Broderick, Duke's gender violence intervention coordinator, typically contacts the accuser and requests a meeting. Students don't have to meet with Broderick, but most do.  She and other counselors provide the students with support and guide them through any processes for adjudicating their claim of sexual assault.

Campus officials who work on the front lines of responding to sexual assaults say the new approach has succeeded in identifying and assisting more Duke students who might otherwise bottle up their emotions and concerns. "We tell them on the front end that Duke takes this seriously," said Ada Gregory, director of Duke's Women's Center. "We find that more students are seeking help."

"Our real goal is to get students the help they need," agreed Zoila Airall, assistant vice president of student affairs for campus life, who said the policy change has already helped students who might otherwise have tried to handle a potentially traumatic experience on their own. "We don't want them to jeopardize their academic experience," she said.

Duke officials knew the new policy might be criticized by some advocates who say mandatory reporting can scare off victims wary of going public.  But Gregory says "it isn't panning out that way.  Instead, as we had hoped, we have been able to advise and help more students than we would have with the old policy. I haven't heard any complaints that the new process is an unnecessary invasion of privacy."

"I was skeptical at first; I thought it might dis-empower the victim," Moneta said. "But we think we're uncovering more victims because of it. I'm now convinced we've really exposed the problem and empowered the victim. Once it's reported, it's still in the victim's control, but it has at least shined light on it."

"The evolution of our student policy reflects a shift in recent years in how universities and other employers are thinking about these issues," said Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration.

A predictable by-product of the approach has been a rise in reported cases of gender violence, according to a report released earlier this month by Duke's Gender Violence Task Force. In 2008-09, Duke officials received 47 reports of gender violence. Since the mandatory reporting requirement was put in place, that number rose to 96 in 2009-10 and 108 a year ago. The numbers include any report by a Duke student of sexual assault, including those that occurred earlier in their life or away from Duke.

Most of the reported incidents did occur on or near the Duke campus. "That doesn't mean the number of rapes and sexual assaults on campus increased that much, or that fast or at all," Broderick said. "It means we're finding out about far more cases. Instead of a passive approach, we're going out and finding them."

The approach has also led to more conversations with possible assailants. On college campuses, rapists are often serial offenders, said David Lisak, a University of Massachusetts-Boston researcher who has spent more than two decades studying rape on college campuses. "About two-thirds of individuals who commit sexual assault do it repeatedly, and these guys don't think of themselves as rapists."

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Similarly, Duke's pro-active reporting requirement may help root out false reports of sexual assault, campus experts say. While infrequent, false reports do happen and can usually be disproven through investigation, Gregory said. Between 2 and 8 percent of rape allegations are false, according to FBI statistics.

Beyond the changes it has made to its reporting procedures, Duke has launched a number of prevention measures. All first-year students now must attend a Welcome Week presentation on alcohol use, sexual assault, consent and other social concerns. This past spring, Duke piloted a new bystander intervention program, training three groups of student leaders to recognize and intervene in situations that may lead to sexual assault or other sorts of violence.

Campus officials say the university is placing the well-being of its students ahead of any fallout from reporting more sexual assaults, which they say probably still fall short of the actual number. They cite reports such as a 2000 Department of Justice study that estimated between 20 and 25 percent of women experience sexual assault while in college.

The federal government requires all universities to submit annual crime statistics under the Clery Act, named for a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. Under the act, conversations between professional counselors such as Broderick are considered confidential and generally not counted in these data. Last year, Duke reported 12 forcible sex offenses through Clery, a total that includes incidents reported directly to campus police or other campus security authorities.

"The vast majority of (rapes) are still not reported," said the University of Massachusetts-Boston's Lisak. "That's why the Holy Grail is increasing reporting rates."