In the first year of the #MeToo movement and along with an increase in survivors stepping forward to publicly speak out against instances of sexual assault, the University of Michigan has seen a similar increase in reports of sexual misconduct compared to last year. The recent publication of the Office for Institutional Equity’s yearly Sexual Misconduct Report presents a rise of reported sexual misconduct instances coupled with a decrease in University investigations.
The publication aggregated all reports received by OIE between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018 and the office’s responses within the University’s Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Policy. Compared to last year’s report, OIE saw a 27 percent increase of reported cases, rising from 218 to 277.
Within the same time period, the number of investigations launched from reports to OIE decreased from 28 to 20. The number of reports have steadily risen since University president Mark Schlissel commissioned campus climate surveys on sexual misconduct in 2015. The findings reported 11 percent of students experienced sexual assault during their time on campus.
University Title IX Coordinator Pamela Heatlie said the increase in reported cases may be indicative of the effectiveness of the University’s recent reporting channel updates. As for the investigation data, Heatlie said it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.
“Reports being up, I think, is a positive indicator that our education efforts about our process of reporting and people’s willingness to report to us is effective. It’s going up year over year which is good,” Heatlie said. “In terms of the number of investigations this year dipping, we had another year where it dipped. It’s kind of hard to have any feelings about a one-year data point.”
Rackham student Nicole Bedera is currently conducting a dissertation at the University on how various academic institutions respond to sexual misconduct cases. When considering the current OIE report, Bedera said the low number of investigations compared to the previous year could be a result of the increased attention to reporting processes on behalf of the University. She said data collection on the claimants’ impressions after interacting with OIE would be helpful in determining whether or not the new reporting methodology benefits the claimants.
“It is possible that more stringent mandatory reporting requirements are bringing more reluctant complainants forward who were never interested in an investigation and would not participate should one start,” Bedera wrote in an email. “I would like to see more information reflecting the degree to which those reporting sexual misconduct are satisfied with their treatment by the Office for Institutional Equity.”
The report breaks down the total 277 cases into eight categories – 148 sexual assault concerns, 85 sexual harassment claims, 26 stalking claims, 27 intimate partner violence cases, four gender-based harassment claims, three retaliation concerns, one violation of interim measures and seven “other” cases. “Other” cases involved prohibited conduct that did not explicitly fall under the University’s sexual misconduct policy.
When considering the cause of why the number of launched investigations dipped compared to last year, Heatlie pointed to data in the report on the University’s policy scope and the wishes of the claimant. The report claims 102 of the 277 reports brought to the University were deemed outside of the University policy’s scope, meaning the report could possibly involve a member outside of the University community, conduct that isn’t technically prohibited by the policy, etc.
Out of the 175 cases that were deemed inside the scope of University policy, 152 of the cases were not pursued because either the claimant did not want an investigation or OIE could not identify the claimant. Heatlie cites this as the primary reason for why there are so many reports and so few investigations launched. Heatlie said OIE takes the claimant’s wishes heavily into account when considering investigating.
“We would be happy to investigate every single report that comes into our office but our Student Sexual Misconduct Policy … has a process that gives the claimant the ability to say to the institution, ‘I would like this investigated’ or ‘I wouldn’t like this investigated,’” Heatlie said. “We want to respect that when possible, when there isn’t, for example, a campus safety issue that overrides that request and so our primary focus when handling any report that comes into our office is campus safety and wellbeing, including the well-being of that particular claimant.”
Melissa Overton, deputy chief of police at the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security, also spoke about the reasons why someone might not report a sexual misconduct case. According to both Overton and Heatlie, DPSS and OIE work together on cases when a crime has been committed such as sexual assault or intimate partner violence.
While Overton said she expected sexual assault claims to increase due to situations like the Nassar trial giving survivors a greater opportunity to speak, she also said many survivors might not want to continue with the investigation to avoid the traumatic experiences recalled by an investigation and subsequent trial.
“If they don’t want to press charges, specific to sexual assault… typically it’s because they don’t want to end up going through the court process is why they may choose to not move forward with it. A lot of people just want to ignore it and move on,” Overton said. “It takes time from their life and then they have to keep revisiting that incident over and over again.”
The OIE report comes amidst a push from federal officials led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to increase protections for students accused of sexual assault. Michigan has become a battleground for debate over misconduct policies — after a University student accused of assault sued administrators for violating due process rights, a federal judge ordered a live hearing in the case.
Rackham student Kamaria Porter has also researched Title IX impacts at the University, and previously sat on the sanctioning board mandated by the previous Student Misconduct Policy. Porter said the University better assists the claimants by offering various options for investigation to help ease the stress of discussing the incident.
“Students want different things. Maybe they want a formal grievance procedure and that’s what’s available, maybe they want a restorative justice procedure or meeting that would include not just them and the accused student but other members of their immediate community and friend network to really process healing for the injury that has occurred,” Porter said. “I think offering the students more options in the cases might be a good next step.”
As for the 20 investigations handled by OIE, the office determined only three of them had sufficient evidence to confirm that the events (one stalking case, one sexual harassment case and one intimate partner violence case) occurred. In the University Sexual Misconduct Policy, it states the University must find that it is “more likely than not” that the accused committed the act the claimant has accused them of to find them in violation of the policy.
While Bedera agreed with Heatlie and Overton about the trauma of reporting sexual misconduct and wanting to investigate, Bedera wrote the low amount of investigations ending in a confirmation of the event could lead to low investigation rates in turn.
“While the rate of responsible findings is so low, many survivors will be deterred from reporting the sexual misconduct they endure, which makes the campus less safe for everyone,” Bedera wrote. “If it is the case that investigations are declining because complainants do not want to participate in the formal adjudication process, the low rate of responsible findings is a likely culprit for their unwillingness to cooperate.”
Moving forward with this data, Heatlie said OIE will continue to observe trends but will continue to assist the claimant with resources and the necessary info to help them.
“Though it is important to look at overall data, it is each individual person who comes to us for help, that’s our continued focus,” Heatlie said. “How can we help that person in that situation?”