Will Mandated Reporting Laws Help Victims of Campus Sexual Violence?

At least four states are considering or have enacted college mandated reporting laws, and campuses may choose to implement this practice regardless of the law. But does MR actually work?

Over the last few years, several institutions of higher learning have been accused of insufficiently responding to and preventing sexual assault. Most recently, the media have covered scandals involving Baylor University, and the allegations have been consequential for the future of the school. It has resulted in the removal of President Kenneth Star and celebrated football coach, Art Briles.

Baylor is by no means the only institution under scrutiny. The Department of Education is currently investigating more than 100 colleges and universities to determine if Title IX violations have occurred. Title IX mandates, in part, that institutions of higher learning (and K-12 school districts) provide a safe environment free of sexual harassment for all students. Thus, allegations that universities have swept crime under the rug run directly counter to federal legislation.

Department of Education sanctions range from mandated policy changes to substantial fines – upwards of $35,000 for each violation. Schools have a significant incentive to ensure their policies on sexual assault are effective. Accordingly, several recent developments to address campus sex crimes have been implemented or considered nationally such as climate surveys, affirmative consent policies and mandated reporting (MR). Climate surveys are designed to measure the extent of sexual assault at institutions given the low rate of reporting among college students. Additionally, affirmative consent laws seek to clarify and expand the definition of consent (“yes means yes”) to sexual activity.

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This article examines the last and perhaps most controversial policy – laws that compel university employees to report allegations of sex crime. Most recently, Virginia has experimented with MR laws. Specifically, the new law mandates that “responsible employees” – such as faculty members and administrators – report any allegation of sexual victimization or harassment to the institution’s Title IX coordinator. From there, the coordinator relays the information to a committee of other administrators and university law enforcement personnel. Based on the particulars of the crime (e.g., repeat, physically violent, weapon use), the committee decides whether to disclose the offense to local law enforcement. Other states – Rhode Island and New York – are also considering enacting such policies.

Mandated Reporting First Applied to Child Abuse
The history of mandated reporting legislation can be traced to the 1970s in the United States. The reforms were originally intended to protect children from abuse committed by adults. Today, all states practice some form of MR. Nearly all versions require those who work closely with children (e.g., teachers, doctors, social workers) to disclose any knowledge of the abuse of children. Some states go further and require all adults to report acts of suspected abuse. The laws are underpinned by the notion that children might not recognize abuse as wrong or they may fear retaliation, and so adults should act as capable guardians who report on their behalf.

The application of such laws to college students is new but the logic is similar. Only one in five college students disclose their sexual victimization to law enforcement; higher numbers though tell trusted friends, families and colleagues. Thus, it follows that MR laws that compel university employees (those who work closely with students) to disclose suspicions of abuse, might lead to more successful criminal investigations and apprehension of offenders. Having said that, this core assumption has yet to be tested and examined by researchers. For this reason, the reforms – perhaps grounded in sound logic – remain a “black box” for efforts to prevent sexual victimization.

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