College students overwhelmingly support mandatory reporting policies for campus sexual assault, VCU professor finds

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Many institutions of higher education across the country are facing questions over their handling of sexual assault cases – notably including Baylor University, which last week ousted its president and head football coach after an investigation found that the athletic department failed to report allegations of sexual assault to school and police officials.

Christina Mancini, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted a recent study on the topic of “mandatory reporting” policies regarding sexual assault on college campuses.  

Mancini, who is the author of more than 30 studies in the areas of sex crime, victimization, campus crime, public opinion and law, recently discussed the findings of her study, “Mandatory Reporting (MR) in Higher Education: College Students’ Perceptions of Laws Designed to Reduce Campus Sexual Assault,” which appears in the June edition of Criminal Justice Review.

What exactly are mandatory reporting policies?

Mandatory reporting (MR) laws, as applied to higher education, are an extension of child safety policy popularized in the 1980s. The laws are designed to protect vulnerable victims who may be unable to disclose abuse to the authorities. The logic is that certain professionals — that is, individuals who come into contact with children and may recognize or suspect abuse — should be duty bound to report these allegations to law enforcement. Some states now consider all adults as “responsible employees.” Depending on the specific statute, negligence in disclosing allegations as a mandated reporter could result in criminal sanctioning or fines.

College students have the lowest rates of reporting sexual assault. Only one in five victims will disclose their offenses to law enforcement.

Sexual assault is rarely reported. In the general population, approximately one in three individuals will disclose their victimization to police. College students have the lowest rates of reporting sexual assault. Only one in five victims will disclose their offenses to law enforcement. Thus, the university version of MR defines students as the “vulnerable” population and faculty and university employees — administrators, for example, as mandated reporters. Again, failure to report disclosures from students to the college’s Title IX coordinator or law enforcement could result in criminal and civil penalties, in addition to termination from the institution. Generally, the laws require mandated reporters disclose the allegations even if victims wish not to have contact with the institution or police. 

Virginia recently enacted a version of MR and at least three other states (New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island) have implemented such legislation or are considering it in the future.

Why are mandatory reporting policies for sexual assault considered controversial?

The laws have been criticized on several fronts. Three are most prominent. One concern is that the laws are paternalistic. College students are distinct from children and following this logic, should as victims of sex crime have the autonomy to decide to report or not. Another controversy involves the potential for victims, particularly those who do not want contact with the justice system or university, to experience trauma by being contacted by a Title XI coordinator or law enforcement officer. A separate issue is that the laws, designed to increase reporting and investigation of sex crime, might boomerang. Students might be deterred from reporting if they are aware that faculty must report the assault. 

In your recent article, you studied how college students perceive mandatory reporting policies for sexual assault. What were some of your findings?

College students approved of MR policies. Over two-thirds would strongly support or support such efforts to address sexual victimization. However, majorities of students also recognized the potential for the laws to have unintended consequences like reduced victim autonomy and diminished reporting.   

The survey also inquired about their perceptions of faculty compliance.  Most (85 percent) believed their professors would fulfill their duties under the law.

What do you see as some of the implications of your research into this topic?

A glaring observation is to evaluate the effects of the laws. In light of concerns about autonomy, how do victims view MR? Are the laws associated with a reduction in sexual offenses on campus? What about faculty perceptions? A second implication involves faculty perceptions. That is, given the novelty of the new policies, are faculty members aware of their duty to report? Are they familiar with the process of reporting? To what extent does MR occur? Fortunately, as a professor, I am able to investigate these and other research questions along with my stellar colleagues from the Wilder School!

This week, the unfolding situation at Baylor University has reignited a national conversation over campus sexual assault. In the context of your research into mandatory reporting policies, how do you view this case?

Unfortunately, Baylor University is not the only institution under investigation for potential Title IX violations. Over 200 institutions are currently facing federal inquiry concerning their handling of sex assault allegations. This number suggests that requiring universities to investigate, punish, and sanction interpersonal violence is fraught with challenges. Institutions are not policing agencies, nor do they constitute criminal courts. They are also not correctional systems. The most severe sanction a school can impose on a student-perpetrator found “responsible” for sexual assault is expulsion. Having said all this, MR laws, as currently conceptualized, have the potential to increase university accountability by forcing the occurrence of investigations into allegations. Their recent implementation also appear to prioritize policies to address sexual victimization among a population that rarely reports it. 

Future efforts, though, will need to analyze the impact of such efforts and identify and correct for any unintended consequences of the well-intentioned policies.


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