Reporting Concerns: Survivors Describe Experiences with the Office of Title IX

As policy, the Herald follows Associated Press guidelines and does “not generally identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted…except in unusual circumstances.” The four interviews with survivors of sexual misconduct on this campus were conducted on the record, and the Herald will not identify those victims of sexual assault and harassment. Instead we have given them the opportunity to choose a pseudonym with which we will reference their interview. The Herald chose this process to allow readers to follow the story and its notations about incidents of sexual misconduct.

When Holly went to Title IX in 2016 to report a domestic abusive relationship, which included both heavy emotional and physical violence, she was looking for support. She went to Title IX with concerns and hoped to receive accommodations that would allow her to communicate with teachers and feel safer on campus.

She went in for her meeting with a notebook, and the conviction that she would not reveal the name of her abuser; she did not want action taken without her consent. Instead, she was told that she had to submit a name that would be checked against a spreadsheet of alleged abusers and perpetrators on campus, and if this abuser had been reported already then an investigation may be launched for the safety of the community.

Another survivor, Maria, noted that Susan Lee, the Colleges’ Title IX Coordinator, had a “tone of: ‘The investigation would be good because then you would know for certain that this would not happen again.’ Although it was not stated outright, it was definitely implied through speech.”

The Office of Title IX and Compliance has the reputation among survivors of pressuring students to pursue an investigation and complaint against their perpetrator, even when survivors don’t believe it’s in their best interest.

Holly also said that she felt that the Office did not seem to understand the danger of her situation, and instead focused on how this could happen to other people: “I did not report because I was so terrified by [Susan Lee’s] seeming lack of – she was like smiling and I had to repeat multiple times the amount of danger that reporting put me in on this campus.”

Lee wrote to the Herald: “A challenge  to Title IX professionals during these processes is that often we must balance multiple (and sometimes competing) important objectives. Deputy Title IX Coordinator Tremayne Robertson and I are trained to conduct trauma informed interviews. We are committed to using thoughtful processes that avoids re-traumatizing survivors as much as possible. At all stages we encourage people to bring a support person to the meetings and we provide information about the advocates available from Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes. If someone has a concern or request about the process, we encourage them to let us know so we can adapt to best serve them.”

Veronica, another survivor of sexual assault on this campus, personally did not go to Title IX after her two sexual assaults, because she “[knew] that nothing will come of it.”  She continued, saying: “My friends who have reported have had such negative experiences that it gave me anxiety to even think about going…They were asked so many questions like, ‘Were you drinking? Were you at a party? Show us how much you were drinking.  How many shots do you think it was? Were you drinking mixed drinks or beer?’”

“We need to sufficiently identify what occurred to allow us to make correct referrals and provide interim measures, and importantly to tell the survivor what options they have for filing with Title IX and/or law enforcement,” Lee said in a statement to the Herald. “We are also making the initial record of the survivor’s report, which is important evidence if they want to file a complaint now or in the future. We are identifying and preserving evidence. We are working hard to identify and respond to the survivor’s emotional needs with appropriate referrals and support. We follow the survivor’s preference and may do these steps in more than one meeting or by other communications in some cases.”

“The women are being taken into these [Title IX] meetings,” Veronica continued. “Already feeling vulnerable and alone, and, yet, the members of that office seem almost threatening, as if the survivors could get in trouble because of the accusations that they are making…In [the Title IX Office’s] questioning, it makes you doubt what you are reporting and that is so dangerous. It’s perpetuating the problem and our entire campus has a problem with rape culture.”

Issues go beyond the reporting stage, as well. Maria, although she did not pursue an investigation, did get a No-Contact Order against her assailant. When finalizing it with the Office of Title IX, Maria received an email from the Office about her perpetrator. It said: “‘He wanted me to tell you that he’s sorry and that he had a very very concerned and serious response.’ And that’s OK,” Maria told the Herald. “But I don’t really – I don’t need that – I don’t need to hear that. That just kind of made me feel like, once again there was like, ‘Yes this happened, but he’s really sorry,’ and that just doesn’t cut it for me.”

The purpose of a No-Contact Order is to ensure that the survivor does not interact with the assailant on campus. To have the Office share information about the assailant’s feelings implicitly encouraged Maria to believe that an apology makes up for rape.

When asked about No-Contact Orders, Lee replied: “It is our practice to notify the survivor when the person has gotten the No Contact Order and to share their response. For example, we may let the person know that the NCO was received and the person has agreed to not contact them. If either the person requesting or the person receiving the NCO has a problem or concern, they can contact our office to request modification of the NCO or other assistance.”

“[They] emailed me again,” Maria said. “‘He wanted to know if it was OK if he could [go where you work].’ And I was like, ‘I think I’d be OK, but I don’t know.’ And [the Office] said, ‘Well given his very serious and concerned response, I don’t think he’ll be bothering you.’ Just kind of the – it may not be explicit but it’s just this implication that ‘Well he said sorry and he knows that what he did was wrong so it’s OK.’ And that really really got under my skin and really hurt.”

The Herald News Team also met with Lieutenants Michael Passalacqua and Matthew Valenti from the Geneva Police Department and learned about the procedures in place for reporting and investigation with law enforcement. Students can report without pursuing an investigation with police. But in those instances in which they do wish to pursue an investigation, procedure is followed allowing the survivor to feel safe and to ensure that, as Lieutenant Valenti said, “the survivor does not relive their trauma multiple times.”

Only one interview is conducted, by the detective in charge of the case, and that occurs after a report has been filed with the on-duty officer and then assigned to the detective by a lieutenant.

When talking about HWS’s procedures, Lee noted, “If a complaint is filed, an investigator is assigned to the case and is given the initial meeting notes so the information is not lost and unnecessary repetition is avoided. For the investigation, the survivor will have an interview to give more in-depth information to the investigator about their experience.  They may have more details that they now remember and they may identify other people to be interviewed.  There may be a follow up interview to allow the survivor to respond to evidence and statements from other witnesses and the accused. Again, this is difficult but important to a fair, thorough and complete investigation. Throughout the investigation, we strive to make process as comfortable as possible.”

Survivors felt that there is implicit and explicit pressure from the Office of Title IX, which was noted in interviews with the Herald; however, Lee noted, “We encourage – but do not pressure – survivors to file a complaint with Title IX and/or law enforcement by providing them information about the process, the support they would receive, the protection from retaliation, and the alcohol/drug amnesty policy. We answer their questions. If a person does not want to file a complaint, under law and our policy, we have a duty to assess the safety risk to our campus and the survivor to determine if we can honor their request. The survivor is not required to participate in the process.”

“It is a difficult decision for a survivor. Filing a complaint is stressful. Going through the process takes time and can be traumatic even with all possible care taken. We understand that many survivors will not want to take that path. We also know that formal complaints with investigations, the determination of responsibility and the implementation of sanctions if the accused is found responsible for committing sexual misconduct is critical to making a campus community as safe as possible. We respect that there is no one right decision. Each situation is unique and each survivor has their own reasons for their personal decision to file a complaint or not,” Lee concluded.

Although there are benefits for an investigation and hearing, it can allow for perpetrators to be suspended or expelled, it can further traumatize survivors and ostracize them from the community. The Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) Survey results further this theory, and show that students worry about the perception of other students if they report to Title IX.

Faculty have also expressed issues with how the Office approaches survivors and investigations. Professor Hannah Dickinson, who serves on the Title IX Coordinating Committee and was on search committees for the Title IX staff, noted that the legal aspects of Title IX compliance became a much more significant aspect of that office’s work after Lee arrived on campus.

Professor Chris Woodworth, who served on the Sexual Violence and Evaluation Team and has worked with Professor Dickinson on both the Sexual Violence Task Force and currently on the Title IX Coordinating Committee, noted that “From an advocacy perspective, faculty and staff being ‘responsible employees’ is not always [helping] the survivor.”

The law mandates that “a responsible employee includes any employee: who has the authority to take action to redress sexual violence; who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence or any other misconduct by students to the Title IX coordinator or other appropriate school designee; or whom a student could reasonably believe has this authority or duty.”

Furthermore, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “deems a school to have notice of student-on-student sexual violence if a responsible employee knew.” This puts any institution in a precarious position: help the survivor from an advocacy standpoint, or protect the institution from an investigation and lawsuit?

Professor Woodworth expanded on this dilemma in her interview with the Herald: “…students don’t talk to me as much about those concerns [about safe spaces or even assaults] because there is an obligation on the part of faculty to report to Title IX when it is revealed to us. And I understand from a legal perspective why they want to push students towards talking to Title IX, from a practical perspective that does not always work. From an advocacy perspective that is not always serving the survivor.”

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