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Will Mandated Reporting Laws Help Victims of Campus Sexual Violence?

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

The Pros and Cons of MR
A natural starting point toward the ultimate goal of empirical evaluation first requires understanding the possible advantages and disadvantages of MR. Strengths include the possibility of greater reporting. By requiring “responsible employees” to report allegations that would otherwise go undisclosed, universities and law enforcement would be tapping into more accurate accounting of the extent of sexual victimization. By extension, MR might motivate criminal investigation into alleged sex crimes. Not least, because victims would be known, services and assistance could be better distributed and accessed. 

There are possible drawbacks of MR, however. Perhaps most glaring is that victim autonomy is substantially reduced. That is, once victims disclose to someone such as a trusted faculty member, perhaps in the heat of the moment and not aware of the law, or simply desiring some assistance, no discretion exists to keep the crime in confidence. Having procedures in place that force interaction with the institution and potentially the justice system appears to undermine the autonomy of victims. In turn, such an experience could be emotionally traumatizing to the victim.

Additionally, victims who are aware of MR may be deterred from disclosing any detail of the crime. The possibility exists for MR to result in even less reporting among victims of sex crime.

Moreover, universities have a responsibility to ensure due process for individuals, especially alleged student-perpetrators accused of sex offenses. Might MR result in wasted law enforcement resources or the possibility of falsified reports? What if a student alleges, say in a creative writing course that s/he was assaulted at a party by another student, but the allegation is merely fodder for the writing assignment? Under this scenario, faculty would still be mandated to disclose and institutional resources would be wasted.

More Research Is Needed
Where does this leave us? Should institutions comply with MR? To what extent are mandated reporting laws helpful or harmful to crime victims and the larger collegiate community? How should they be designed and implemented? There are no easy answers to address these questions. 

Perhaps the larger observation is that while well-intentioned, there is the potential for the laws to backfire. To safeguard against such effects, the laws should be further examined. In this regard, scholars should investigate how victims and students perceive the laws. Are they likely to report under MR strategies? Additionally, how do faculty respond (e.g., are they aware of their obligation, the process?). These are critical areas to examine but are by no means exhaustive. 

The decision to implement MR ultimately rests with individual states and institutions of higher learning. Having a more accurate knowledge base of potential effects might better inform policy efforts to prevent sexual assault. The issue is simply too big, too consequential and too far-reaching to ignore. 

Christina Mancini, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and the Graduate Coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has published more than 30 studies and two books on sexual victimization, sex crime policy and criminal justice.

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