Faculty members are no longer confidential resources when it comes to reporting sexual violence.
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, which calls for gender equity in federally funded educational programs and is most often associated with funding for women’s sports, also has implications for sexual violence. On the website KnowYourIX.org, several stipulations are listed for schools to be in compliance with Title IX in cases of sexual assault. For instance, schools must “take immediate action to ensure a victim can continue their education free of ongoing sex discrimination, sexual harassment or sexual violence.”
In April of 2011, the Department of Education issued a 19-page Dear Colleague Letter on the Title IX implications of campus sexual violence, and in October 2014 the Department of Education also released final regulations significantly amending the Clery Act, which set standards for crime reporting and victim support on campus. With these regulations, faculty members at colleges and universities became “responsible persons.” This means when a faculty member at Penn receives information that sexual violence has occurred, they have an obligation to report it to Penn’s Title IX Coordinator, Sam Starks.
“That is a change in position for the University from what we have always understood to be the case,” said Law Professor and former Chair of the Faculty Senate Claire Finkelstein. “We have previously understood the category of responsible persons to be University administrators, or anyone who has an official role in carrying out university policy on Title IX, but because the Department of Education has...been seeking to broaden the category, our General Council’s Office has recognized that under current legal guidelines all faculty members are all responsible persons within the meaning of Title IX.”
Last year the University distributed “Sexual Violence Reporting: A Short Guide For Faculty,” to faculty members last year. The guide contains a section labeled “Details You Must Report,” which says “You must share with the Title IX Coordinator whatever information has been shared with you, including the names of any individuals involved, the details of the incident, and the person’s wishes regarding next steps including if the person wishes to keep the matter confidential.”
The change hasn’t come without controversy. An Inside Higher Ed article called “Endangering a Trust” said, “[Faculty members] worry that fewer students will come forward if doing so means a report.”
Director of Faculty Development and Equity Programs within the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Lubna Mian acknowledged that one potential downfall of the policy adjustment is “the sense that the faculty member cannot assure the student that everything the student tells the faculty member will be held confidential.”
Mian noted that the details of these reports remain on a strict need-to-know basis.
“It’s very important that students understand that if you tell someone, it doesn’t mean that everything you told becomes visible to everyone in the administration,” she said. “There are very very careful procedures to make sure that student names, for example, are considered highly confidential.”
Mian said what happens after an instance of sexual violence is reported is “highly dependent on what is reported,” since sexual violence can range from verbal harassment to physical abuse or assault. Ron Ozio, the spokesman for Starks, sent an email statement saying the administration can actually take action and launch an investigation even if the complainant asks for no action to be taken.
“The complainant’s preference is absolutely taken into account. However, in some instances the University/Title IX Coordinator may determine that steps should be taken to prevent a recurrence of the behavior and ensure the safety of the Penn community,” the statement said.
Some faculty members don’t view the policy change as negative. Communication professor Sharrona Pearl thinks more accountability for professors will most likely be a good thing.
“I think professors being more aware of the rules and laws, if anything, will only lead to greater sensitivity on the part of professors, ideally,” she said. “Are students now going to be concerned that they don’t have confidentiality and aren’t going to be able to come forward to professors? I’m not sure students felt like they were to turn to professors because that was a confidential space. I think maybe this would make students feel a little bit more comfortable knowing that professors are a little bit more educated about the stakes for Title IX.”
There are completely confidential resources on campus where students can talk about sexual violence without worrying about required reporting, like Special Services within the Division of Public Safety, the Penn Women’s Center, the LGBT Center, Student Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services, among others.
Mian said she thinks the pros outweigh the cons for implementing this new policy. This is largely because the other part of Penn’s adoption of this policy change strongly urges faculty members to not only report, but also to direct students to appropriate support services.
“Students will be funneled to the right place to help, and patterns of sexual misconduct will be more readily visible to the institution,” she said. “Overall, I think the thinking is that by making people responsible parties it is making sure these issues get attention.”
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