Last week the White House released the first report from its Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. (Read our post on it here.) Alongside the report, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a 53 page document titled “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence.”
The Task Force’s report and OCR’s guidance both reminded schools of the importance of encouraging students to report sexual violence as well as the legal duty of “responsible” school employees to report.
In light of recent recommendations from the Task Force and guidelines from the OCR, students at George Washington University (GW) have suggested that teachers’ syllabi should also include basic information about reporting sexual misconduct on campus.
A syllabus has become much more than a list of readings and assignments for a course. It often includes details about classroom conduct and grading, as well as statements about accessibility, equality, and counseling resources.
Nearly every instructor spends 20-30 minutes reviewing their syllabus on the first day of class. The extra time that they would have to spend to cover a short statement on sexual misconduct would be minimal, but it would mean that students are given critical reporting information every term, an effective way to distribute it widely and on an ongoing basis.
As Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), noted, putting the information on a syllabus can also help students retain the information:
We’ve found that people don’t ever expect to need a service like this. They tend not to hold onto information about sexual assault services. But they are going to hold onto a syllabus, since they need it for other purposes.
Berkowitz also noted that having the information widely available can make it less awkward for students to look it up when they do need to consult it.
Below is an example of what this statement might look like:
A Note on Sexual Misconduct
Our school is committed to fostering a safe, productive learning environment. Title IX and our school policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
Sexual misconduct — including harassment, domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking — is also prohibited at our school.
Our school encourages anyone experiencing sexual misconduct to talk to someone about what happened, so they can get the support they need and our school can respond appropriately.
If you wish to speak confidentially about an incident of sexual misconduct, please contact one of the following resources [insert name and contact information of confidential campus resources]
If you wish to report sexual misconduct or have questions about school policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct, please contact our school’s Title IX coordinator [insert name and/or contact information of Title IX coordinator]
Our school is legally obligated to investigate reports of sexual misconduct, and therefore it cannot guarantee the confidentiality of a report, but it will consider a request for confidentiality and respect it to the extent possible.
As a teacher, I am also required by our school to report incidents of sexual misconduct and thus cannot guarantee confidentiality. I must provide our Title IX coordinator with relevant details such as the names of those involved in the incident.
The beginning of a class probably isn’t the time to make students cover the school’s entire sexual misconduct policy. But a short statement like the one above provides students with essential information about what conduct is prohibited, confidentiality, and how to report.
Confidentiality is a particularly important issue to cover, since many teachers may have a duty to report. According to the OCR’s FAQ, responsible employees must tell students their duty to report “before a student reveals information that he or she may wish to keep confidential” [emphasis added]. How that would work in practice is less clear, since a.) it may be hard to tell what a student is about to reveal, and b.) such a disclosure on the part of the employee may discourage the student from reporting or even talking about the event.
By covering the issue at the beginning of the semester, teachers can explain confidentiality issues and show that the school is serious about tackling sexual misconduct.
If a not on syllabi seems too onerous, another possibility is to ask students to read a short statement (like the one above) before they register for classes. Many schools already do something similar for a statement of academic integrity.
As the White House report suggests, this issue can only be tackled through a coordinated effort. Schools need to look to a broad array of strategies and measures they can implement to ensure their students know campus policies and procedures. Finding opportunities, such as instructors’ syllabi, seems one easy way to keep students informed and to convey the school’s commitment to this serious issue.