The Honorable but Thankless Work of Leading Sexual-Assault Investigations

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Dear Colleague,

Welcome to your new position overseeing sexual-assault investigations on your campus. As a veteran in this area, I have some thoughts to share that I hope will prove helpful.

Presumably, you are undertaking this work because you believe in its importance — that fair, unbiased, evidence-based determinations, conducted with thoroughness, professionalism, and compassion, play a critical role in dealing with the scourge of campus sexual assault. Nurture and strengthen that commitment because it will be your only motivation in the work to come. There will be no rewards of any kind, and the blistering assaults on your institution and on you personally — however unfounded — will be unrelenting.

Sexual-assault cases are exceedingly complex, with multiple and often intersecting variables: the elements of consent, the reasonable-person standard, the components of incapacitation, and many others. Unfortunately, you will find that people have limited patience for those complexities or for the principles of fairness that underlie this work.

When, for example, both the accused and the accuser are students in good standing, they have equal rights to campus resources — until and unless an evidence-based outcome determines otherwise. Your efforts to explain that premise in the face of calls for immediate expulsion of the accused will be interpreted as lack of institutional support for survivors. You will point out that this is what fundamental fairness requires, and is what people would expect if the typical gender assignments of female complainant, male respondent were upended. You will be accused of failing to understand systemic gender oppression. You will give up trying to make this point.

You have chosen to work at a college or university because you care about students. Understand that your ability to have authentic, supportive relationships with students who are bringing or responding to sexual-assault complaints will be impossible in most cases.

Consider the complainants. By the time students come to you, they have already been hurt by conduct that may or may not constitute a policy violation on someone’s part. They will have three primary needs — none of which you or your institution can meet:

Complainants need you to take responsibility for the harm they experienced. Because it happened at your college, and was caused by someone on your campus, the default assumption is that the institution is responsible for the incident and the resulting harm. That may be true in some cases, such as when the offender is an employee or when past complaints about that person were mishandled or ignored.

In most cases, however, the incident in question did not result from institutional negligence, but rather from the complicated cultural forces that underlie sexual conduct and misconduct.

In broader society, blame is difficult to assign beyond the individual(s) who caused the harm. But a college community provides an accessible culprit in the form of your administration. Do not attempt to carefully point out that there are limits to how much any institution can do to combat the pervasive, destructive societal influences that can affect students’ sexual interactions. That will be perceived as shirking responsibility, and possibly victim-blaming.

Complainants need you to be their champion. They need the college — and you as its representative — to unequivocally state upon receipt of the allegations, "I believe you. I believe that what happened was unacceptable and a violation of our policy, and we will bring you justice."

You will recognize that need as completely understandable. You may long to say those words. However, you cannot say them — unless and until that is the official finding of a thorough, evidence-based investigation. Any expression of support will be seen as bias. It will compromise the integrity of the inquiry and consign any resulting determination to an appeal and possibly a lawsuit. And that will only compound the distress of both parties.

You will instead rely on exceedingly careful and neutral phrases — such as "I am very concerned by what you’ve just shared." Regardless of your sincerity, you will see on the faces of the complainants that they need you and the institution to fight for them. Your caution protects them, but all they will see is that you have let them down.

Complainants need an immediate resolution in their favor. They want a certain outcome — about which they may be profoundly conflicted — and they want it fast.

Participation in a thorough and professional investigation requires difficult things of them: time, emotional and intellectual attention, detailed exploration of exceedingly painful and embarrassing topics, evidence, witness involvement, and more. An essential part of complainants’ identities — now and for the rest of their lives — will be entwined with the outcome of your investigation. While it’s in progress, they live in an emotional limbo, ranging from highly distracted to utterly devasted.

That prospect will lead many potential complainants away from reporting, and will lead those who do file complaints to direct their pain at the administration. They will blame you and the college for what a fair investigation must require of them. Your explanation of the necessity of each phase of the inquiry will not mitigate their pain. Expect accusations that your institution deliberately makes the process complicated and difficult so as to discourage reporting.

Thus, even before you have begun an investigation, you have already failed the complainants in their eyes. Even if they get their desired outcome, you and your institution will be held responsible for its toll.

Consider the accused. They have a different set of needs, which you also will be unable to meet.

You will learn that there is no monolithic profile of a respondent, although the vast majority are men. While you will encounter the occasional sociopath, most of the accused will fall somewhere on the broad spectrum between the embodiments of entitled toxic masculinity and inept adolescent. All are capable of causing harm. Until the investigation is finished, you will not know whether that harm was intentional or unintentional, or whether it constitutes a violation of campus policies.

Nonetheless, respondents, too, are placed in an emotional limbo — deserved or undeserved — in which their core identities and their academic, professional, and personal dreams are in jeopardy. Nonwhite respondents will carry additional burdens: fears that your process will be racially biased and that, regardless of the outcome, the accusation itself will confirm societal stereotypes they may have been battling all their lives.

Most respondents are cut off from community support, as their shame, fear, and anger do not tend to engender public sympathy. Some are targets of social-isolation campaigns. You will assure them that they are in good standing until proven otherwise. But in their eyes, simply by virtue of investigating the allegations against them, you have failed them, too.

Beyond working with students, your responsibilities also include training campus employees — particularly "campus security authorities" (as defined by the Clery Act) and "responsible employees" (as defined by Title IX) — about their legal obligation to report to you any information they have on incidents of sexual misconduct.

Prepare for a backlash from colleagues who reject that obligation. If a student, speaking confidentially, discloses that she or he has been sexually assaulted, some faculty and staff members feel that protecting the privacy of that student constitutes the moral high ground.

You will point out that you and they are obligated to protect the rights and safety of allstudents — including those who may become victims in the future because an employee failed to report an allegation involving a potential serial offender. You will discover that the hypothetical can never compete with the immediate.

Several times a year, a group of righteous voices from across the campus will accuse you of handling these complaints internally because you want to protect your institution’s reputation. Those voices will demand that your institution refer all sexual-assault reports to the police, "where they belong."

You will point out that their demand contradicts all best practices that emphasize the importance of inviting survivors to identify their own needs and make their own choices, rebuilding the sense of control that sexual violence can demolish. You will explain that going to the local police has advantages for survivors (advanced criminal-prosecution resources and potentially substantial sentences) but also has drawbacks (the higher evidentiary standard of "beyond reasonable doubt," the public nature of a trial, and the multiyear process).

Anticipate that your accusers will have lost interest in your response by this point.

With similar predictability, prepare to receive intermittent demands that the administration send out an all-campus notification — naming the accused — every time a report of sexual assault is received. You will explain that in most cases, the allegations at that point are unsubstantiated and therefore do not justify the release of the respondent’s name. Especially on a small campus, providing such details generally compromises the privacy of a complainant.

Understand that your explanations will be interpreted as a smoke screen to obscure the lack of institutional commitment to student safety.

Each year, as required by the Clery Act, your institution will release to the public an annual security report (ASR). Anticipate immediate backlash in two areas:

  • Your report numbers — which will always be considerably lower than what research suggests is the actual prevalence of sexual assault — will be decried as institutionally manipulated low-balling.
  • The predictable discrepancy between the number of incidents reported on the ASR and the number of actual investigations you pursued in the same time period will be cited as evidence of institutional negligence in failing to investigate sexual misconduct.

You will explain that many victims do not wish to pursue investigations, and that you work very carefully with them to honor their wishes. You will share that this is an ethical quandary that pits today’s victim against tomorrow’s, and that there is no morally superior position here.

Nonetheless, your campus will expect you to meet two contradictory mandates: (a) Never pursue a sexual-assault investigation against the wishes of a victim, and (b) always pursue investigations against every student accused of sexual assault.

At various points, barely recognizable versions of your cases will be publicly disclosed by accusers or the accused, both of whom will direct their fury at the institution and at you for whatever outcome was reached or the arduous process of reaching it. Student protests may result.

You may assume that colleagues — aware of the restrictions of privacy and employment laws — will understand that there is more to the story than you can legally disclose. Prepare to find many colleagues undaunted by the limitations of their knowledge. They will speak out against the institution and you with ringing authority based solely on limited and often slanted representations from one party.

You will try to take solace in the fact that every aspect of your investigation has been thoroughly documented. Should this incident result in a lawsuit — with your records subpoenaed and made public — you will be vindicated, and the outcome will be understood and upheld. You will wonder what to do with your sense of impotence in the meantime.

Demands for justice will ensue. You will come to understand that people on your campus have an admirable but utterly unattainable definition of justice: the absence of harm of any kind caused by sexual misconduct and its aftermath.

At some point, you will revisit your commitment to doing this critically important work. You will recognize that, even with your best efforts, it is impossible to investigate a complaint without causing harm. Not merely difficult. Impossible. No one will understand that, and so any harm caused — to the complainant, the respondent, their families, the broader campus — will be attributed to your own and your institution’s ineptitude and immorality.

These thoughts have been offered under the cloak of anonymity. If you do this work, you will learn, as I have, that everything you say — in any context or forum — will be dissected, misrepresented, and, at some point, tendered as evidence of your own and your institution’s bias. Your words also will be used as evidence of any number of other offenses: discouraging reporting, blaming victims, railroading respondents, protecting the institution, rejecting professional and institutional responsibility.

As a result, you will keep your explanations, insights, frustrations, and grief to yourself. By and large, you will feel silenced, vilified by and isolated from a community you seek to serve.

I write this hoping to be heard. For until our campuses are willing to accept the full complexity of these issues, understand the long-term consequences of short-term demands, and turn their energies from misinformed and misdirected accusations to genuine solutions, we cannot make meaningful progress on campus sexual assault. We will remain stuck.

May you contribute your very best efforts to this thankless but honorable work for as long as you are able. And may you exit when you must.

Helen Evans is the pseudonym of a midlevel administrator who oversees sexual-misconduct complaints at a liberal-arts college in the East.

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