WENTWORTH: Processing the informal complaint

Yale’s sexual harassment complaint system has gotten a hefty share of press recently. Following the Patrick Witt debacle, people around campus are searching for ways to wrap their heads around what happened. Did he really do it? Didn’t he? How can we possibly know if there was never a formal investigation and trial?

Some confusion may arise from unfamiliarity with the system of complaints. Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct gives victims two ways to report an instance of sexual assault. They can file a formal complaint, at which point the Committee will assemble a panel to investigate the claim and run a hearing. Both the accuser and the accused testify, and the accused, if found guilty, can face punishment from the Executive Committee or elsewhere.

Victims who don’t want to file a formal complaint can make an informal one. There is no formal investigation, and the accused does not face any official disciplinary measures. Instead, resolutions to informal complaints often include keeping the accused out of the victim’s dorm or class.

The fallout from the complaint against Witt suggests that the informal complaint system is flawed. A man who was not given the opportunity to defend and testify for himself has woken up to see a smearing story painted across the pages of the New York Times.

While not the kind of punishment the UWC doles out, anyone would agree that Witt did not avoid punishment as a result of the complaint’s informality. Should convicted rapists be punished? Of course. Was Witt ever convicted? No. By providing the informal complaint system, the UWC has facilitated the denial of Witt’s due process we hold so dear.

So the informal complaint system is flawed. But the suggestion that these flaws mean the system ought to be done away with crosses the line. It’s easy to get wrapped up in frustration and lose track of the fact that the UWC is there to protect victims of sexual assault, first and foremost.

Victims of rape and other forms of sexual assault have suffered significant harm at the hands of their attackers. The University must not compound that by forcing them to choose between a formal report and inaction. Some victims may find that their needs are best met through the formal complaint process. Others may even choose to go through the trying process so their attacker will not be able to harm others on campus again.

But that is not the profile of every sexual assault victim. For many, the prospect of facing a full investigation and trial in order to punish their attacker is more than they can handle. With the informal complaint process, they can seek changes that will reduce the likelihood of day-to-day contact with the attacker. In a world in which sexual assaults are already grossly underreported, the informal complaint system allows victims to take action without enduring the potentially painful and often lengthy formal process.

According to our legal system, Witt should not be punished for acts for which he hasn’t been convicted. But neither should the University hinder a victim’s options in dealing with the painful aftermath of rape.

We’re stuck. Usually, the informal complaint system works. But because Witt’s story got wide media attention, flaws in the system have been exposed. In situations like this, the rights of the accused to a fair trial and the well-being of the victim are at odds. So, clearly, something has to change.

What can’t change is the availability of the informal complaint process. That process provides victims with the option to respond, to regain control and to shield themselves from the scrutiny they would inevitably face in a trial. Yale must keep some form of the informal system to do its job to protect its students.

The informal complaint system is not without reverberations throughout the Yale community. It may affect Yale’s public image by lowering the number of visible cases of sexual assault. Students may not find it the most transparent and comprehensible system.

But sexual assault policy isn’t about how Yale is viewed in the public eye. It isn’t about providing a simple and well-understood policy. It is about finding a system that is fair to the two people whose lives may be shaped by the outcome of a complaint.

Caroline Wentworth is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at caroline.wentworth@yale.edu.

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