As a resident assistant (RA), a mandatory reporting role under Title IX, the likelihood to report and refer fellow student sexual assault varied, depending on RAs’ knowledge of reporting procedures and resources, trust in these supports, and perceptions of mandatory reporting policy. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2017, Vol. 41, No. 5, 429-439
The Evolving Landscape of Title IX: Predicting Mandatory Reporters’ Responses to Sexual Assault Disclosures
Kathryn J. Holland, University of Michigan
Lilia M. Cortina, University of Michigan
Approximately 1 in 4 women is sexually assaulted in college, a problem that federal law has attempted to address with recent changes. Under the evolving landscape of Title IX, and related law, universities nationwide have overhauled their sexual assault policies, procedures, and resources. Many of the new policies designate undergraduate resident assistants (RAs) as Responsible Employees—requiring them to provide assistance and report to the university if a fellow student discloses sexual assault. We investigated factors that predict the likelihood of RAs enacting their policy mandate, that is, reporting sexual assault disclosures to university authorities and referring survivors to sexual assault resources. Based on data from 305 Responsible Employee RAs, we found that likelihood to report and refer varied, depending on RAs’ knowledge of reporting procedures and resources, trust in these supports, and perceptions of mandatory reporting policy. Understanding mandatory reporter behavior is crucial, because help-providers’ responses can have serious implications for the recovery of sexual assault survivors. Our findings elucidate some effects of changes in the interpretation and implementation of Title IX, with potential to inform the development of more theoretically and empirically informed policies.
sexual assault, resident assistant, mandatory reporting, Title IX, law
Summary of the Research
“Approximately one in four women is sexually assaulted in college. There can be devastating psychological and educational consequences of sexual assault, including depression, posttraumatic stress, suicidality, performance decline, and school withdrawal. Recent changes to federal laws attempt to address this issue.
For example, Title IX guidance now dictates requirements for university sexual assault response systems, including the development and implementation of policies, reporting procedures, and resources. Both Title IX and The Clery Act establish mandatory reporting roles on campus: employees who are required to respond to sexual assault disclosures in specific ways (e.g., reporting all known assaults to the university, with names, with or without the victim’s consent)” (p. 429).
“Under the evolving landscape of federal law, universities nationwide have overhauled their sexual assault policies. Decisions made in these policy revisions have significant implications for employees and students. For instance, under many university policies, undergraduate resident assistants (RAs) are designated as “Responsible Employees” (a mandatory reporting role under Title IX) and required to provide assistance and report to the university if a student discloses sexual assault. Lauren Edelman and colleagues (1999) conceptualize this interaction between institutions and the laws that regulate them as endogeneity of the law—where institutions actively interpret laws and participate in defining what it means to be in compliance” (p. 429).
“The purpose of the current study was to examine how policy decisions—specifically around required reporting of sexual assault disclosures—affect an important group of policy actors: Responsible Employee RAs. RAs play a central role in many of these revamped sexual assault response systems, but we know little about their relevant knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors. Making novel contributions to the literature, we investigate factors that predict the likelihood of RAs enacting their policy mandate, that is, reporting sexual assault disclosures to university authorities and referring survivors to sexual assault resources ” (p. 429).
Data from 305 RAs were collected from a Midwestern university. The researchers attended weekly staff meetings for 17 residents halls on campus where surveys were distributed to these individuals to obtain an understanding of their knowledge of the process to formally report sexual assault and seek help from the sexual assault center (SAC), their trust in the universities ability to handle reports of sexual assault and the SACs ability to provide help to sexual assault survivors, their perception of their mandatory reporting responsibility, their likelihood to report sexual assault to the university, and their likelihood to refer.
“Results found that RAs who had more accurate and comprehensive knowledge of the university’s sexual assault reporting procedures were also more likely to report disclosures to the university” (p. 435).
“However, RAs’ perceptions of their mandatory reporting responsibilities may also play an important role in their likelihood to report. We found that RAs who had more positive perceptions of their role as a mandatory reporter were significantly more likely to report sexual assault disclosures to the university. Moreover, there was a significant interaction between their trust in reporting procedures and perceptions of reporting responsibilities. On one hand, RAs with negative attitudes toward mandatory reporting were more likely to report disclosures as their trust in reporting procedures increased. On the other hand, RAs who had more positive perceptions of their reporting roles were likely to report disclosures, regardless of their (mis)trust in reporting procedures” (p. 435).
“Contrary to our expectations, knowledge and trust of SAC services alone were not significant predictors of RAs likelihood to refer survivors to the SAC. However, we did find a significant main effect for their perceptions of mandatory reporting responsibilities: RAs with more positive perceptions were more likely to refer. We also found that the complex relationships between RAs’ knowledge and attitudes were related to their referral intentions” (p. 435).
“Taken together, our findings demonstrate that RAs’ responses to sexual assault disclosures are not as simple as knowing they have to report and/or provide referrals. Instead, the complexity of RAs’ knowledge of university sexual assault reporting procedures and resources, trust in these support systems, and perceptions of their mandatory reporting responsibilities all play a key role” (p. 435).
Translating Research into Practice
“Currently, there are no explicit or uniform requirements for training Responsible Employees under federal law. In its Title IX guidance, the Office for Civil Rights stresses that university employees—especially those who are likely to receive reports of sexual assault, including RAs—should receive training that will allow them to know the procedures for reporting sexual assault and how to respond appropriately; however, this is guidance (not law) and leaves room for variability in institutional interpretation and implementation of these recommendations (e.g., training content and delivery) ” (p. 436).
“Current and future policies should establish clear requirements for training Responsible Employees. These employees have a weighty role: they are responsible for bringing assault survivors in contact with campus support systems, which have the potential to strengthen or impede healing after an assault” (p. 436).
“Moreover, schools must systematically and empirically evaluate the effectiveness of these trainings. Universities are not required to evaluate their sexual assault education and training efforts, and many do not assess the efficacy of RA training in general. Our study identified the importance of assessing RAs’ knowledge and perceptions of reporting procedures and resources: do they understand what they are being asked to do, and what do they think about that? RAs experience stress and frustration with their role as a policy enforcer, especially when these obligations interfere with other key responsibilities like developing trusting relationships with their residents. These contradictory roles are even more challenging when policy obligations conflict with what might be in their residents’ best interests; for instance, a survivor may not be emotionally ready to formally report her/his assault, but that student’s RA may be mandated to report it anyway. Policies that remove survivors’ agency in reporting decisions may be experienced as institutional betrayal for both the survivor and the employee. Consequently, universities should evaluate the impact of policy decisions on both policy actors and intended beneficiaries” (p. 436).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“Although our study was an important first step in understanding RAs’ responses to sexual assault disclosures, future experimental and longitudinal research will be essential for identifying how RAs’ knowledge and attitudes influence their actual responses to disclosures. Moreover, it will be useful to conduct qualitative research to gain more in-depth and nuanced understandings of RAs’ knowledge and perceptions of university sexual assault policies and resources” (p. 436).
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Authored by Amanda Beltrani
Amanda Beltrani is a current graduate student in the Forensic Psychology Masters program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, specifically, criminal matter evaluations. Amanda plans to continue her studies in a doctoral program after completion of her Masters degree.