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.

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