Maria, a first year female graduate student, is the only woman of color in her entire academic department. She has become close friends with her advisor’s administrative assistant. Maria comes in late one morning, uncharacteristically disheveled and quiet. She reluctantly tells the administrative assistant that the previous night, after a department happy hour, one of the other students in the department offered her a ride home.
He took her to his apartment rather than to hers, poured her an alcoholic drink, and then suddenly kissed her and tried forcefully to have sex with her. Maria fled the apartment. As she stood outside trying to call an Uber, he yelled down to her saying he was going to tell everyone she had come on to him and he was “really uncomfortable with the things she had done and said in his apartment.” She got home safely, but now feels terrified that other people in the department will find out and blame her. Unsure what to do or think about it, she just goes on to her afternoon class.
That day over lunch, the administrative assistant tells two close colleagues all the details of what Maria told her. They discuss the situation with two other colleagues at the table who are from another academic department. They collectively decide that the offending student, a well-liked guy who is also the nephew of the department chair, was probably just a little drunk and misjudged Maria’s often flirty behavior. Also, none of them want to be the one to file the necessary paperwork, out of fear of personal or professional retaliation.
The Guiding Principles and Their Implications
#1 — Victims/survivors have the right to confidential support and to know what will happen with their information. Faculty and staff have a responsibility to inform victims/survivors about confidentiality limitations and options - before victims/survivors choose to share - and to maintain the highest level of confidentiality possible given legislation and institutional policy.
The administrative assistant should have let Maria know up front about her responsibility to notify the university of such abuse. If a staff member thinks a student is about to disclose gender-based violence the staff member could say, “I am really glad you feel comfortable talking to me and I want to support you. First, though, I need to be clear that if you tell me about your/another student’s experience with intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or stalking, I have to report that to the school so they can offer you support, and help you and others stay safe.” For more information on staff responsibilities, see 'Designate Each Employee's Reporting Status' for definitions and guidance.
A staff member who is reminding a student of their duty to notify the institution can inform the student of exactly what information and details are required by the institution’s form. This information should include the nature, date, time, and general location of the incident, and the identities of the victim/survivor(s) and alleged perpetrator(s). The student can therefore decide what to share and what to withhold.
The administrative assistant should have training so they know how to handle a disclosure of violence before they are ever faced with the situation. As part of all-staff training, employees should be instructed on how to inform students of the confidential and non-confidential resources available to them on campus and in the community. Employees should also connect students with a confidential resource on campus who can provide them details about all of their Title IX and Clery rights and reporting options.
Employees should have regular, ongoing training so that the information with which they are provided is current, accurate, and fresh on their minds.
Even though Maria did not specifically request confidentiality from the staff member (which the staff member could not have granted anyway), the staff member should not share personal details about any case related to IPV or sexual violence with any other person, except to submit the required paperwork, directly and immediately, to their supervisor and the Title IX office.
If a staff member has knowledge of a private situation involving a student following a disclosure, and someone asks them for details or wants to discuss the case, the staff member should refuse to discuss the case and only share the relevant information with their supervisor.
When notifying the institution, a non-confidential staff member must share all details they know about the situation based on the student’s disclosure. Following their fulfillment of the duty to notify, the staff member is still responsible for protecting the privacy of the reporting student and not sharing identifying information with other parties. The staff member violated Maria’s privacy by sharing information with colleagues other than their supervisor and the Title IX office.
#2 — Identify the WHO, HOW, and WHEN of protecting victim/survivor confidentiality. Who can protect the confidentiality of victims/survivors? How will the institution protect their confidentiality? When might confidentiality be limited?
Employees should know whether or not they are a non-confidential staff member with an obligation to notify the university of IPV, sexual violence, and stalking. A school must inform employees of their responsibilities and of the importance of informing students of their responsibilities.
The administrative assistant should have relayed the information immediately to her supervisor and to the Title IX office. The matter should never be addressed exclusively by staff/faculty within the department without informing Title IX staff at the school. (When a responsible employee knows or reasonably should know of possible IPV, stalking, or sexual violence, the Office for Civil Rights deems a school to have notice of the violence. The school must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred, or risk investigation and fines by the OCR.)
The response to Maria’s abuse needs to be timely, appropriate, sensitive, and respectful. In this scenario, the staff members’ discussion of confidential matters and decision not to notify the university of the sexual abuse was, instead, inappropriate (only those with a ‘need to know’ should be given information on a student’s personal situation), insensitive (victim-blaming), and disrespectful (not confidential).
#3 — Inform all students of their options for notifying the institution and/or reporting abuse to law enforcement. This should include anonymous options, and may increase the likelihood that students will disclose and/or report IPV.
Visit the section entitled ‘Inform Students of Reporting Options’ in this document for more detailed information.
Maria should receive a list of those with whom she can confidentially discuss her experience. She should also be informed of her options to disclose to the university and/or report to law enforcement - and what will happen next if she does. Types of reports include: anonymous, confidential, non-confidential, quasi-confidential, formal, and third-party.
Maria, and all other enrolled students, should have received clear definitions of IPV and sexual assault so she can identify what happened to her. She should also have received a statement encouraging her to report the offense. Maria can always choose the extent to which she participates in any institutional or legal investigation process.
This allegation may be serious enough that the school should take immediate action to investigate and find out more about what happened to Maria. Investigators should use trauma-informed interviewing techniques and respect her autonomy about her preferred level of participation throughout the process. For more information, see 'Develop Comprehensive Reporting Procedures'.
#4 — Seek input and collaboration from reporting students and their advocates. Work together to solicit and incorporate victims'/survivors' and advocates' input about the school's actions related to IPV prevention and response, with respect for the confidentiality of all parties involved.
Immediately upon receipt of the report, the school can offer the student the option for a school based, no-contact order between Maria and the alleged perpetrator. This will prohibit him from having any form of contact with her - in person, via technology, or through a third-party.
Victims/survivors often fear retaliation, even when they are told the institution prohibits retaliation. This is particularly relevant to victims/survivors who are part of the same department as the alleged perpetrator.
Maria’s feedback on her participation in the process should be voluntary and de-identified, and should not affect her access to services and involvement in her education.
Maria should be afforded reasonable accommodations related to school, home and work so she can remain fully engaged in her education. For example, Maria should not be enrolled in a class taught with the alleged perpetrator until the school has made a determination about her case. For specific requirements related to her rights to gain assistance, see ‘Address Victims’/Survivors’ Rights and Resources for Assistance'.
Victims/survivors often fear other consequences related to marginalized or oppressed identities; consequences such as being rejected by their community or being mistreated during a resulting investigation and adjudication process. All efforts should be made to honor her autonomy and gather feedback about how the process is affecting her as a student. Even if she decides not to participate in the resulting investigation and adjudication process, school officials can check in periodically to make sure the alleged perpetrator has not violated the no-contact order.
Concerning safety, the school should take into consideration if there have been past reports or concerns about this student’s behavior toward others in the community and respond accordingly.
Victims/survivors who have not been connected with a campus or local advocate should be offered one. Whether or not a victim/survivor chooses to work with an advocate, the school must make sure that the student victim/survivor has access to information on their TIX and Clery rights, and the school’s policies and processes.
The administration should consider the need for additional training for staff in this academic department. For more information on staff training requirements, visit ‘Provide Training for Staff and Faculty’ in the Prevention & Education section.