Forcing sexual harassment reporting on campus can have a chilling effect

Forcing sexual harassment reporting on campus can have a chilling effect
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The recent onslaught of allegations of sexual harassment in this country against celebrities, journalists and politicians including Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, John ConyersJohn James ConyersWoman accuses New York state senator of sexual misconduct Dissatisfaction with position of women in US hits new high Republicans on the run: Retirements could be trouble for Trump and party MORE, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, George Takei, Louis C.K., Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath MORE (D-Minn.), Richard Dreyfus, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Oreskes and others heighten the collective curiosity about who reports and why.

Harassment is often thought of as a result of an employer or coworker’s actions in the workplace, but it happens at the university level as well. Recent allegations of sexual harassment in academia by professors at Dartmouth, Berklee College of Music and Princeton, as well as by fraternities highlight the pervasiveness of the problem.

While applauded for bravery frequently, accusers are also often defamed and otherwise suffer retaliation. Yet, paradoxically, during this climate of increased awareness of sexual harassment and the explosion of #MeToo stories, some universities —  both private and public — are potentially discouraging the reporting of it.

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As a researcher and forensic psychological expert on sexual harassment, I have often seen the devastating psychological consequences of these traumatic experiences. I also know how few women and men formally report sexual harassment. 

 

I have evaluated students who were fearful and depressed after allegedly having been harassed by a professor who had academic power over them — the power to give a poor grade, block graduation or interfere in a chosen career. Feeling helpless to escape a harasser’s behavior, terrified of retribution and without appropriate support, the student can sink into despair.

A recent trend among universities is the requirement that all university employees be mandated reporters of sexual harassment — even for adult students. These institutional policies influenced by Title IX, while well-intended, in effect leave no safe place for victims of harassment to emotionally process their experiences and thoughts about reporting.

That is, unless they speak to a university designated confidential counselor or someone unaffiliated with their university.

A student may come to my office, knowing I am both a psychologist and faculty member, looking for my emotional support. But as he or she tells me what has happened, I stop and say, “Wait, don’t tell me unless you want me to report it to the university.” Not ready to report, the student may seek support elsewhere. Or nowhere.

It is at vulnerable times like these that targets of harassment may seek a supportive and trusted faculty member or other university employee, rather than a stranger such as a university counselor.

However, the requirement that university employees be mandated reporters means that these students can no longer seek this support without triggering an institutional report of harassment — something the student may not want.

If a victim can’t control the behavior of the harasser, he or she should at least be able to control to the choice of individual for support.

Certainly universities and students, faculty and administrators have an interest in protecting students, especially minors, from sexual misconduct as well as in having that misconduct reported in order to connect victims with appropriate resources and to investigate their claims. However, forced reporting of harassment against a student’s wishes is unlikely to lead to such outcomes and instead could cause unintended harm.

The concern is that students now may seek less support about their experiences for fear it will be reported — and thus less reporting of harassment may occur — whereas if students are allowed to confidentially speak to any university employee, those employees could support and encourage victims to report.

More than ever, students need support in order to report harassment. Changes in 2017 by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos on how universities conduct investigations of misconduct may make students leery of reporting. It may be more difficult to prove their claims and as they may now be directly cross-examined by their harasser — a potentially traumatic experience and one that could lead to fear of reporting.

You could reasonably argue that the accuser and the accused deserve equal protections in cases of allegations of harassment. However, even in a court of law, typically someone other than the harasser (who is most often the legal representative) questions the alleged victim. This provides at least some, protection from being re-victimized psychologically.

Fear of institutional betrayal may lead to a chilling effect of reporting harassment. These fears are unfortunately often well-founded.

For example, the women who have accused Roy Moore of harassment and assault have been portrayed as political pawns, whose alleged experiences are either trivial or who should be criminally prosecuted for not reporting sooner.

This is not new. The consequences of reporting were also abundantly clear for Anita Hill, who was publicly maligned in 1991 following her accusation that now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

This watershed moment in reporting sexual harassment was likely many people’s first public exposure to the riskiness of reporting sexual harassment.

As the reality of reporting sexual harassment in our culture becomes increasingly clear, the options for university students should not become less so. Adult student victims of sexual harassment deserve more options for confidential support, not fewer.

Dr. Angela Lawson is a clinical psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology & Psychiatry at Northwestern University and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She has also worked as a forensic consultant and expert in sexual harassment litigation for the last 13 years.