Universities weigh complaint options

The recent controversy surrounding an informal sexual assault complaint filed against Patrick Witt ’12, along with the release of Yale’s first University-wide report on sexual misconduct cases last week, have intensified scrutiny of the University’s formal and informal complaint processes.

At Yale, 43 of the 52 complaints filed between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year were informal, meaning they included no formal investigation or disciplinary action. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she recognized there are benefits to offering only a formal complaint process — such as the opportunity for accused parties to be notified conclusively of their culpability — but she emphasized that the informal option is important because it allows complainants to pursue a simpler route toward resolution.

After the Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter that clarified Title IX regulations last April, a growing number of universities began emphasizing formal mechanisms for resolving issues of sexual misconduct, said Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. At Yale, which had both formal and informal complaint procedures before the “Dear Colleague” letter was released, administrators have worked in recent months to raise awareness of all complaint options in cases of sexual misconduct.

Daniel Siegel, a California-based lawyer who handles Title IX cases, said that whether a formal or informal procedure is more appropriate can depend on a complaint’s severity. Some circumstances may only require that administrators speak with a respondent and issue a reprimand, he said, while other more serious cases should give an accused perpetrator the right to a full investigation.

“Having both procedures is valuable to the victim and may be necessary for the alleged offender,” Siegel said.

Lake said informal complaint procedures can be constructive since they allow students to “air out grievances or concerns without having to be really oppositional.” Still, he said there are also “enormous” disadvantages to an informal complaint process, such as the increased tendency of administrators to suppress serious issues “when they need to be brought to a higher level of attention and decision-making.”

“One thing that formality brings is finality,” he said. “It gives a sense of ‘this has been dealt with’ and ‘this is what was done.’”

Bonnie Fisher, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, said there is significant variation in sexual misconduct policies at universities. Fisher, who has researched campus responses to incidents of sexual misconduct, added that many critics of universities’ procedures argue that cases of sexual assault should be left to the criminal justice system.

Lake said the “Dear Colleague” letter “spooked” administrators and led to “almost an arms race” among universities to enhance sexual misconduct response programs.

“Every day, it gets a little bit closer to a criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s starting to look much more formalized.”

As Yale adjusts its sexual grievance procedures — including the establishment of the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) last July — it faces an ongoing investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights into a Title IX complaint filed by 16 students and alumnae last March alleging that the University has a hostile sexual environment.

Both Title IX coordinators and the UWC address informal complaints, though formal complaints must pass through the UWC. Students can also bring complaints to the Yale Police.

Of the 52 complaints listed in last week’s University-wide report, 36 were brought to Title IX coordinators, 12 were filed with the UWC and four were brought to the Yale Police Department.


  • Catherine08

    What is an “informal complaint”? Is that otherwise known as gossip?

    • AlexH

      To answer the first (and only relevant) question, an informal complaint allows the victim to go before members of the UWC and make a complaint against a student/faculty member. There is no fact finding or disciplinary action but the victim can ask to receive services for him/herself or can ask for other measures to be taken to ensure his/her safety and comfort (such as moving colleges, sections, etc.) Note that I said the VICTIM has to come forward, it cannot be second or third hand information.

      • Bouchet

        Does participation in the informal complaint on the part of the accused imply an admission of guilt?

        • AlexH

          No. There is no assumption of guilt.

      • JackJ

        You keep emphasizing “victim” but “victim” may well be an inappropriate term if the act is determined to be one of misperception or misinterpretation. I have adjudicated more than one incident of a complaint of “off color” or vulgar language where the complaining person misheard, misunderstood or just decided that his/her interpretation of the event created an unacceptable environment. Since the process is informal shouldn’t you refer to the person initiating the process as a “complainant” since “victim,” in the mind of almost everyone who hears it, connotes someone wronged?

        • AlexH

          I think that you’re right, sometimes it is more accurate to call them a “complainant.” but I think that many times, at least according to the Title IX report, it does refer to someone wronged. Whether or not there is any punishment to an incident, I do feel that the person who has been hurt (especially with regards to sexual misconduct or assault) has the right to refer to him/herself (and is, in some cases) as a victim of an incident even if there is no “accused.” I think calling someone the “accused” is problematic or the “perpetrator” but I feel like victim can be appropriate in some circumstances.

  • joey00

    For how long will the complaint stay on file ? If it’s ever placed on or in a file.What is the standard practice ,proceedure ? Not only for sexual harrassment but for any kind of harrassment, would the process be the same ? Would you refer the sexual harrassment victim to the police ? And the same for disturbing disagreements and voracious differences of opinion

  • Mikelawyr2

    What does it mean to be raped? Serious question.

    Take a look at the Greg Kelly case in The New York Times today. She says she was raped on October 8, 2011. Here’s what happened next, according to The Times:

    “While the woman told the police that Mr. Kelly had raped her after they returned to her office, she told them that the two continued to have contact by phone and text message after the encounter.

    “According to her account, when her boyfriend later learned about the night, he became angry and approached the police commissioner at a public event and told him that the younger Mr. Kelly had sexually assaulted his girlfriend. The commissioner told him to write a letter, according to the woman’s account, but it did not appear that he did so.

    “Commissioner Kelly’s account of his encounter with the boyfriend was similar, though according to his spokesman, Paul J. Browne, the man told the commissioner that his son had ‘ruined my girlfriend’s life’ but declined to discuss it there. So the commissioner suggested that he write the letter.”

    She filed a complaint 3-1/2 months after the incident, on January 24, 2012.