Institutional courage is needed to reform Title IX mandatory reporting requirements

Institutional courage is needed to reform Title IX mandatory reporting requirements

Rebecca L. Howard, M.A.,1 Allison E. Cipriano, M.A.,1 & Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D.2,3

1University of Nebraska-Lincoln 

2Wayne State University

3Center for Institutional Courage

What happens when a graduate student wants to tell their professor that they have been sexually harassed? Or when a college freshman tells their resident assistant that they were sexually assaulted? What about an assistant professor who wants to share with a trusted colleague that they have experienced unwanted sexual advances by a tenured professor?


Too often, these survivors find themselves silenced, betrayed, or both.


Mandatory reporting policies require designated faculty, staff, and employees to report disclosures of sexual violence to the Title IX office or administration. Mandatory reporting has been widely embraced on university campuses, with the vast majority designating all, or nearly all, of their faculty, staff, and other employees as mandatory reporters.


At first glance, these mandatory reporting policies seem ideal. For survivors who want to report their experience, campus community members cannot ignore their disclosure and are required to report.


But what about survivors who do not want their experience reported?


Institutions have the power to act (or fail to act) in ways that can harm their members.


For universities, widespread mandatory reporting can silence survivors who want to keep their disclosure confidential. Mandatory reporting also takes choice away from survivors who do disclose by requiring their disclosure be reported with or without the survivor’s consent. Both cases are forms of institutional betrayals. Survivors depend on their universities—for their job(s), degree, housing, health care, etc. Therefore, when institutions act in ways that do not respect, honor, or protect survivors, they are betrayed.


And this betrayal is not harmless.


Research has found that institutional betrayal is associated with worsened psychological and physical health outcomes for survivors.


So, how can we change this? How can we better ensure that survivors who need support from their university do not find themselves further hurt?


We need to amend mandatory reporting policies to instead be mandatory supporting policies that respect survivor choice and autonomy.


Quite simply, university staff, faculty, and other employees (e.g., resident assistants, graduate student employees) should be required to report disclosures of sexual violence when survivors want—and consent—to such reports. But when survivors do not want to report, their decision should be respected and their disclosure kept confidential if or until they decide to report. For all disclosures, survivors should also be provided with both on- and off-campus support resources. 


Previously, universities have debated the extent to which mandatory reporting policies are required by federal Title IX regulations. Right now, there is a unique opportunity to clarify these requirements.


The Department of Education is reviewing current Title IX regulations. As such, the Department of Education can rectify the institutional betrayal and harm built into mandatory reporting policies by courageously amending the regulations. Dr. Jennifer Freyd, the creator of institutional courage, has outlined 10 general principles to guide institutions toward courage. Four of these principles can be used to begin a courageous review of mandatory reporting policy. 


“Go beyond mere compliance with criminal laws and civil rights codes.”

Mandatory reporting policies prioritize a compliance-based, checkbox-style approach to responding to disclosures that fails to recognize the individual experiences and needs of survivors. We urge the Department of Education to go beyond this compliance-based approach to develop a survivor-centered, trauma-informed approach that honors the spirit of Title IX.


A trauma-informed approach recognizes that responses to survivors can have either a harmful or supportive effect and seeks to avoid further traumatizing survivors. One of the central principles of a trauma-informed approach is empowerment, voice, and choice, which prioritizes survivors’ autonomy and control over their support-seeking and/or reporting process.


Many survivors choose to disclose for socioemotional support, not to formally report. A trauma-informed approach to reporting policies would better ensure survivors needs are met—regardless of if they want to report or not.


“Cherish the whistleblower.”

We urge the Department of Education to listen to and incorporate the research and lived experiences of survivors, advocates, faculty, and non-profit organizations that have spoken out against mandatory reporting.


Mandatory reporting policies have been widely adopted despite the absence of empirical evidence that they are effective or beneficial for survivors. In fact, a recent study found that survivors preferred a student-directed reporting policy (i.e., the student decides whether or not they want to report) because it enables survivors to maintain autonomy and choice over the disclosure process.


Whistleblowers have been speaking out against these policies for years across multiple presidential administrations. It is time to cherish and use their expertise.


“Respond sensitively to victim disclosures.”

Prioritizing survivor autonomy and choice in and of itself is a sensitive response to disclosures, which mandatory reporting policies inherently do not allow.


Some advocate for mandatory reporting policies because they believe that faculty, staff, and other employees are not equipped to respond appropriately and supportively to disclosures. But this assertion overlooks two important realities: 1) faculty, staff, and employees—particularly those who are women and/or of other marginalized identities—are already receiving disclosures, and 2) universities need to equip the campus community to respond appropriately and supportively to such disclosures.


Responding well to disclosures and knowing of and sharing university and community resources are learnable skills, perhaps particularly for faculty who learn new things for a living.


We urge the Department of Education to prioritize responding sensitively to disclosures by honoring survivor choice and recommending ongoing, continuous education for handling disclosures. 


“Bear witness, be accountable and apologize.”

Mandatory reporting policies have and continue to cause harm. They violate survivors’ autonomy and create a climate of fear that silences survivors.


With this review, the harm that mandatory reporting has perpetrated can be acknowledged and amends can begin. Changing these requirements at the federal level will signal a cultural change in how survivor disclosures are to be approached. A shift of this kind is one step that can be taken to create safer environments for disclosure.


In closing, it is by acts of institutional courage that the harms of institutional betrayal can begin to be rectified. The Department of Education can act courageously now. And so can state governments and universities. With the collective courage of multiple institutions, the cowardice that has allowed these institutional betrayals to occur can be stymied.


To learn more about the harms of mandatory reporting requirements and proposed solutions, check out the Academic Alliance for Survivor Choice in Reporting Policy and Freyd's compilation of articles and resources.


About the Authors

Rebecca L. Howard, M.A., is a Project Coordinator for the THRIVE Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Recently, she was a coauthor on an open letter to Secretary Cardona urging a reconsideration of mandatory reporting policies.

Allison E. Cipriano, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the Social and Cognitive Psychology Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her recent work investigated (the lack of) support for mandatory reporting of sexual assault to university officials and the police.

Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D., is a Stanford University CASBS Fellow (2021-2022) and on the Board of Directors and the Chair of the Research Advisory Committee of the Center for Institutional Courage. During her Fellowship year, she will write her academic book on cultural betrayal, sexual violence, and healing for Black women and girls.


Howard, R. L., Cipriano, A. E., & Gómez, J. M. (2021, September 4). Institutional courage is needed to reform Title IX mandatory reporting requirements. Blogger

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