Reporting sexual assault in schools: the principle, not the principal.


Justice shouldn’t depend on who owns the crime scene.

Our schools can’t speak openly about abuse or rape. Victims see the silence of authority and fear making a report.  How do we change the moving parts of prevention to limit abuse and confront it when it occurs?

On the surface it sounds simple:  see something, say something. But in practice most bystanders don’t say something, administrators don’t tell authorities and less than one in five victims ever reports sexual abuse or assault. Those who do speak must endure an unimaginable gauntlet of further pain and often re-injury without any resolution.

While the recent focus on colleges being accountable for how they address rape has brought public attention, practices have gotten worse. Reporting is badly broken. Need proof? Over a period of four years, half of colleges nationwide logged zero assaults. That’s not possible. Zero “reports” is what they received, meaning many, many victims were silent. Zero reports are no sign of prevention — they are a clear sign no one trusts the systems or the administrations.
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College administrations are squeezed between Title IX requirements, compassion for victims, the rights of those accused and a new climate. How should a victim report, and to whom? Who investigates, what records are kept, or what sanctions are applied? The systems are idiosyncratic, burdensome and discourage reports. One example:  In a drug-facilitated rape of a freshman woman on her third day of orientation by a stranger, a college has demanded to see a rape survivor’s entire sexual history. “To ask the victim in discovery to name every sexual partner and romantic interest she has ever had is irrelevant and outrageous and totally inappropriate. It is intended to harass and intimidate the victim.” )

You’d think when colleges have evidence of an abuser, they’d act to protect additional victims. Sadly, they fail to share what they learn, enabling further abuse and other victims.
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The press seems more interested in looking at the issue in colleges while many of the same flaws exist in secondary schools, where the harm is earlier and the victims are less visible. Changing the system once and for all should include both levels and both public and private schools. Only a comprehensive solution will bring real prevention.


Does the task match the expertise?

“A cottage industry is being created” on campuses dedicated to handling tasks that fall outside the expertise of colleges and universities,”  Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and a former prosecutor and secretary of Homeland Security, warned in an article in the Yale Law & Policy Review published online this month.  ( )

The peculiar often in-camera procedures don’t support victims well, or provide fairness, or build trust among the community because of their murkiness. Without trust, no one will speak up.

“It should not require national media coverage for campus sexual assault to be taken seriously, but we are finding ourselves well past that tragic point. It should be obvious by now that this common rape culture—addressing symptoms rather than causes, dismissing victims, and stifling conversations—is present and prevalent in the schools that don’t make headlines as well as the ones that do.”  ( )

Why are the very people experienced at investigating often not informed (like the DA and police), while the head of school decides what to do, entangled in direct conflicts of interest over concerns for reputation, friends and donors? Even the state social services designed to provide help in cases of guardian abuse cannot deal with abuse by teachers or abusers who are not parents (in NY State).

The functions a good reporting system must perform lead us to identify who should best provide them:
1)  Caring for victims with compassion, building trust, safety and justice.
2)  Documenting, fact finding, investigating, managing confidentiality, keeping records.
3)  Dealing with the accused, providing fairness, weighing sanctions and actions.
4)  Communicating with the community with openness and transparency, balancing privacy issues.

Right now, victims of sexual assault turn to the nearby hierarchy:  the heads of their colleges and high schools. Their hope for justice and fair treatment is soured in a patchwork of systems — if procedures exist at all. School heads aren’t objective third parties. Even if well-intended, many principals lack experience in investigation and stumble on isolating witnesses, questioning or prior knowledge of the accused. Often they prefer not to keep records to limit liability.
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Functions # 2 and 3 above are what the DA is trained to do. And yet school heads don’t call them. As much as it makes sense to seek other victims and ask the community for information, the prospect of bad press and/or liability undermines school heads doing just that instead relying on much smaller discrete inquiries. The lack of search, counseling and openness by the institution severely limits function #1. The usual result is a carefully crafted and contained letter that raises more questions than it answers, defeating function #4.

The system with the best chance to work combines the experience and sensitivities of outside agencies — rather than principals and floor monitors:  joint and cooperative action between the DA (to investigate), state social services (providing victim care), and the institution (speaking openly). Once a report is made, it should be immediately clear if it’s the first, fifth or tenth account of an abuser. When organizations are accountable for records to authorities, it ends the incentive to hide or cover up sexual abuse which has created more victims. More reporting wouldn’t mean more assaults, it means less shame and secrecy.

Institutions which avoid federal funds shouldn’t be exempt from accountability for covering crimes.

“Since child abuse thrives in secrecy, there is a compelling interest in producing these files as it increases transparency on the potential mishandling of sex abuse claims. A society interested in protecting children from criminal assaults would not reasonably leave to the discretion of a children’s social club the disclosure of information regarding criminal assaults on children.” — Judge in Florida. Institutions obliged to protect children, especially a school, must be accountable and end the silence and secrecy.
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Effective reporting is even worse in secondary schools, especially private schools:
— Victims are minors and abusers are adult teachers and administrators.
— Consent is not the issue, early reporting is.
— Schools heads have an inherent conflict of interest, less experience and more reason to cover up.
— Mandated reporting laws and state services have well-known loopholes that remain unfixed.
— Social services are geared to handle guardian abuse – by parents, not others.
— Bystanders and victims are reluctant to speak with police, or the DA.
— Bystanders and teachers are confused on liability despite protections.
— Private secondary schools are worse than public schools.

“Many school districts believe they just have a need to report to their school principal, to the superintendent of the school,” Miller told NBC News. “They don’t recognize that under state law, where they have the laws, they have an obligation to report this to law enforcement officials.”  )

Abuse in public schools is dealt with much more promptly and effectively than in private schools.  One reason is the presence of an office apart from the educators dedicated to investigating accounts of sexual abuse. Why isn’t that same equal protection provided to all?


A model used in NY City Public schools

Abuse by teachers and staff is confronted sooner in the public schools in New York City, thanks mainly to the unit run by Richard Condon.  The Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District is a unit of DOI that operates independently of the Department of Education. The office investigates alleged acts of corruption and other criminal activity, conflicts of interest, unethical conduct and misconduct by anyone within the New York City School District or doing business with the Department of Education.  The office also serves as the Inspector General for the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York and the New York City Board of Education Retirement System.

Why shouldn’t the same independent investigative capability protect private schools as well, in conjunction with local DAs?

( You can watch and hear Richard Condon in this video from the Abuse Symposium at NYU.  Scroll to his beginning at about 1:09 to 1:25   – )

Combine practical state and federal systems with legal reforms and best practices within each school.  Add to the use of experienced 3rd party agencies the recommendations outlined here:  )

Fairness and justice for victims of sexual assault and abuse shouldn’t depend on the location of the building in which it happens. Effective prevention shouldn’t be limited to one small corner for students. Support legislative reform with the Child Victims Act in Albany. Urge your representative to plug the massive loopholes in mandated reporting laws as well.

Until reforms are made, victims are much better served by reporting *first* to authorities – the local DA or police. They are better equipped to record and support survivors and the account won’t be buried. Let the current process at the school in question follow as it proceeds. Those who come forward are protected.

I call on Senators Kristen Gillibrand (NY), Clare McCaskill (MO), Pat Toomey (PA) and others working on the college side of abuse legislation in Washington. Join with Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, Marci Hamilton and victims advocates to connect our best capacities and assemble a universal reporting system. Bring coordinated support to address institutional accountability once and for all. Install one system where abuse now occurs — at college or high school, public or private.

Encourage victims to report by making it easier, more responsive and never buried. Use the principles, not the principals.