Complaint process faces confidentiality concerns

The Rhodes Trust’s knowledge of the informal sexual assault complaint against Patrick Witt ’12 has highlighted the challenges that the University faces in upholding its confidentiality procedures.

Although administrators said all parties involved in formal or informal sexual misconduct complaints — including University officials, complainants and respondents — are asked not to speak about case proceedings, University spokesman Tom Conroy told the News Sunday night that administrators are not investigating how the information leaked to the Rhodes Trust. Still, administrators acknowledged difficulties in enforcing confidentiality rules, and higher education experts interviewed said universities are limited in their ability to control the flow of information.

“Our processes cannot control for conversations that happened before [somebody brings a complaint to University officials],” said Melanie Boyd ’90, assistant dean of student affairs. “The fact that someone is participating in a [University] process does not somehow create a magical cone of silence around that entire event, but it does set up an expectation of confidentiality around that entire process.”

Cases brought to the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC), which handles both formal and informal complaints, are kept confidential in order to guarantee the “integrity of the whole process,” said UWC Chairman Michael Della Rocca. UWC members “explicitly go over the rules regarding confidentiality” — which require keeping the content of the proceedings private — with all parties at the beginning of each hearing in formal procedures, Della Rocca said, adding that the expectation of confidentiality also applies during informal complaint proceedings.

While only the UWC addresses formal complaints, individuals can bring informal complaints to Title IX coordinators or the UWC. Students can also elect to press charges with the Yale Police Department.

Though Della Rocca said there are no specific sanctions in place for students who fail to uphold confidentiality expectations, he said administrators may alert the Yale College Executive Committee or notify a student’s residential college dean in the event of a violation.

One female student interviewed, who filed a formal complaint with the UWC last year and wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of a misconduct complaint, said she thought the committee’s confidentiality regulations were unclear, adding that she felt pressured to accept the confidentiality terms since they were presented to her right before she had to give her testimony. She said she agreed not to “distribute [her] statement or the perpetrator’s statement or talk about the proceedings,” adding that she did not clarify the expectations because she “just wanted to go forward” with the hearing.

“What they said was vague enough to make me feel intimidated and frightened,” she said.

But Della Rocca said reading confidentiality procedures before a student’s testimony is intended to help students feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. He added that all “main parties” in a formal hearing are given a copy of the UWC procedures in advance.

“The success of [the UWC complaint process] is dependent on the commitment of the UWC’s members and of all those participating in the UWC’s processes to honor confidentiality in order to protect the rights and interests of all parties,” Della Rocca said in a Sunday email.

Four higher education law experts interviewed said university administrators generally prefer to keep proceedings confidential to protect the individuals involved, and three added that universities are motivated to maintain confidentiality to prevent public scrutiny of its proceedings or avoid negative press about its cases.

Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said universities’ disciplinary systems are typically much more private than the criminal justice system, a discrepancy Lake said gives students a sense of protection but also generates speculation about “what’s going on behind the curtain.” He said sexual misconduct proceedings often encourage “self-censorship” since students decide it is in their best interest not to discuss such sensitive cases publicly.

“Our justice system tries to be for the most part visible, and college discipline never really evolved that way,” Lake said. “[University sexual misconduct proceedings are] oriented toward private resolution … I don’t think it’s meant to be secretive, but it was seen as a thing not to be worked out in the public square.”

Kristen Galles, a Virginia-based Title IX lawyer who has been litigating Title IX cases since 1993, said complainants are “under no obligation to keep things quiet” unless they have already made a contractual agreement not to discuss the sexual misconduct events or proceedings.

Fifty-two complaints of sexual misconduct were brought to University administrators between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, according to a report on sexual misconduct cases released last month.

Gavan Gideon and Tapley Stephenson contributed reporting.

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