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Residential college advisers and reporting sexual misconduct

As the University faces an investigation for possible violations of federal law under Title IX, it has directed some of its attention to the role of residential college advisers in new policy changes. In the past, RCAs were not required to report sexual misconduct cases to the directors of student life. However, under the new regulations, RCAs now have to report every case of which they are made aware, even if the victim isn’t one of their advisees. Once a case is reported, the University will conduct a mandatory investigation. While the University’s intended goal is to address sexual violence and harassment on campus, the policy change involving RCAs may discourage sexual assault victims from reporting their cases.

According to Jacob Donnelly’s Sept. 25article on the proposed changes to address concerns brought up by the investigation, the federal government is calling residential college advisers “campus security authorities,” a title that is shared by employees such as campus police, security officers and, by definition, “an official ... [with] significant responsibility for student and campus activities, including, but not limited to, student housing, student discipline and campus judicial proceedings.” However, RCAs are still students, and a large part of their day doesn’t involve them interacting with their advisees; this new label basically requires them to take on the legal role of a “campus security authority” 24/7, even for students beyond their advisee group.They receive that training because in becoming RCAs they become paid employees of the University.

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RCAs are individuals with whom advisees and students in general feel comfortable disclosing personal information, especially about something as emotionally distressing as sexual assault. After all, RCAs have specialized training in how to talk to students about cases of sexual misconduct, in addition to other emotional issues. RCAs are better equipped to handle traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault, than students who do not have such training. Therefore, making RCAs “mandatory reporters,” as the Department of Education's new policy dictates, might take away a fundamental resource from potential victims on campus. RCAs can advise these students who might not feel comfortable filing an official report and can guide them toward helpful, qualified resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services or Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education. Unfortunately, the policy change now states that even students outside an advisee group also have lost the possible resource of an RCA, as even their cases would automatically be disclosed to a director of student life and then the University in an investigation. Many victims might already be hesitant to discuss the trauma of experiencing sexual harassment or violence, especially if they don’t necessarily want their case to result in disciplinary action. Having such a dramatic and formal process of dealing with potential cases might reduce the number of victims who come forth —a counterproductive effect of what is a well-intentioned rule.

Furthermore, in discussions with other students, I have heard a couple of them reason that the policy change might not be a huge issue because even SHARE peer advisers have to report alleged instances of sexual misconduct to Director of SHARE Jacqueline Deitch-Stackhouse; therefore, it shouldn’t be a big deal that RCAs have to report similar instances to DSLs. However, there are two key differences: First, the director of SHARE is not required to disclose cases to the University as a DSL would. Reporting to the director of SHARE would not automatically trigger an investigation and possible disciplinary action, whereas reporting to a DSL would. Second, the roles and positions of the two authorities are inherently and dramatically different within the context of student life. I would feel much more comfortable with the director of SHARE knowing about a hypothetical case of sexual assault, as not only do her qualifications address the particular issue of sexual violence and harassment in a college setting, but also her role in my life would be completely separated from other aspects of my Princeton career.

Furthermore, the policy seems to be ambiguous on how to handle certain hypothetical situations. For example, what would happen if an RCA overheard two students talking about a third student’s case of sexual misconduct, which did not personally involve them? Is the RCA mandated by the policy to report this case, even though it is hearsay? In this scenario, the policy strips the victim — the student who wasn’t involved in any part of the conversation — of his or her agency, thereby denying the victim of informed consent of disclosure.

It’s definitely a step in the right direction to involve students, especially students trained in advising, in reporting and investigative procedures. But if anything, this policy may effectively reduce the number of resources available for students to talk to about sexual assault. With the current concerns surrounding sexual assault on campus, these recent changes seem to be exacerbating the problem, rather than relieving it.

Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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