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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Viewpoint: Protecting survivors’ privacy

BY HOLLY RIDER-MILKOVICH

Published February 22, 2014

As director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) at the University of Michigan I focus on two very important and related institutional goals.

One is to help prevent any of our students from perpetrating or experiencing the harms of sexual or intimate partner violence through education and programming. The other, in the terrible circumstances when a student is harmed by these acts, is to support their choices and promote their recovery.

We place the survivor’s choices at the center of our work in order to affirm their agency, strength and right to personal sovereignty. It is from my commitment to this survivor-centered practice that I applaud the University’s decision to not provide any information or confirmation regarding recently published allegations of sexual misconduct, or any other student conduct matter.

The unintended chilling consequence of publicly sharing student information may mean fewer reports and less safety for everyone.

Students involved in a sexual misconduct investigation may choose to share information with whomever they choose. They have the right to decide whether and if they share the information of an investigation outcome with anyone. We will not usurp our students’ ability to make decisions about sharing their experience by providing that information to the public — even when it would silence some critics who believe they have a right to know information that does not belong to them.

There is no question that universities must be visibly and publicly accountable for how we deal with sexual misconduct matters. We need to demonstrate to students, faculty and staff, parents and alumni and to our greater community that our policies are being consistently and fairly applied in every instance and that those who commit sexual misconduct are subject to sanctions that are effective and appropriate to their behavior.

This kind of transparency and accountability promotes a more welcoming climate for students to report their experience and helps creates an overall safer learning environment. The final provision in our Student Sexual Misconduct Policy calls for an annual reporting of the actions taken by the University in response to sexual misconduct reports. When the first report is released at the close of the policy’s inaugural year, I hope that our community will review the report and ask tough questions. That questioning will help make us a better institution.

However, the public good that is achieved through promoting accountability is profoundly undermined when informational transparency exposes individual student experiences to public scrutiny and judgment. We have seen our reports of sexual misconduct increase dramatically — and this means students are feeling safer in sharing information.

However, I have been troubled by a recent trend of survivors who tell me they are reluctant to pursue either institutional or law enforcement redress for the harms they experienced because they did not want the painful, emotionally devastating details of their victimization shared on a public website for anyone to read and speculate upon.

They did not want to be the person who is talked about in class, or their residence halls, or coffee shops. And who would blame them. It’s hard enough to gather the courage to share your story with anyone. For us to make it any harder is unconscionable.

This viewpoint first appeared in the Detroit News and was later submitted to The Michigan Daily.

Holly Rider-Milkovich is the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.