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.


  • panthera

    I’ve been to ExCom for a breach of confidentiality from a previous ExCom visit that had nothing to do with sexual assault but that illustrates how absurd the UWC complaint process actually is.

    I told my friend that I didn’t get suspended after I met with ExCom when I wasn’t supposed to talk about what had happened at the meeting. Someone overheard and reported me to my dean for saying that I was not suspended. If I had somehow committed sexual assault in the process of telling my friend that I was not, in fact, suspended then, if she were to file an informal complaint through the UWC process, no one would have been punished. I was punished.

    This is a problem. Yale’s under investigation for not reporting sexual misconduct cases. In response, Yale needs reports of sexual misconduct. How do they achieve this? “Hey, just call it sexual assault. You’d been drinking, right? Yeah? Great! Let’s write up a report and send you home with no negative repercussions whatsoever. Sounds good, right?”

    I’ve told my friends and people around me that if they have a problem with me that we can’t work out in a mature and cordial way and if they feel the need to report my behavior to someone, I’ve asked them to please go to the cops — NHPD. You think I’m stalking you? Tell me to keep my distance and if I don’t then dial 911! No need to get Yale involved.

    Yes, I’m bitter. You can read the Executive Committee’s Fall 2011 report and find out all about it if you can guess the correct “anonymous.” I hate that I can’t tell anyone about what’s been happening in my life. It’s like Yale is having me wear an eye patch when I can’t help but see things so very differently after my experiences. What and how I see is a part of who I am now. I’m not a victim. I’m glad things happened the way they did. I just can’t tell anyone what happened because I want to graduate. Yes, you can read all about the charges in the Fall 2011 report but I can’t comment.

    Also, I’m heavily relying on the anonymity of this YDN user id.

    • handsomedan

      maybe you should reach out to the YDN to tell your story/concerns? anonymously

    • ldffly

      The administration has been gutless for decades. Are you prohibited from talking to an attorney? (I’m not one by the way.)

      Yes, by law, the police would have to proceed by higher standards of evidence and probable cause than the Yale discipline committees. Of course, that doesn’t mean they necessarily would proceed in such fashion so there’s still some risk of misfeasance by the police.

  • ohno

    “University spokesman Tom Conroy told the News Sunday night that administrators are not investigating how the information leaked to the Rhodes Trust.”

    Uh…why not? This seems like it’s kind of an important point for the wishes of the victim. If she only filed an informal complaint, that sounds like she didn’t want to deal with it any farther than Yale taking measures to make sure she felt safe in her environment on campus. Witt’s not the only one hurt by some anonymous tip off to Rhodes about an informal, private complaint, she also now has to deal with it being widely discussed in the public eye.

    • Justine

      Due process, defamation, libel – whatever type of lawsuit – will force full disclosure and transparency. My bet is that the accused picks up his diploma in June and files a bigtime lawsuit to clear his name the next day.

      Yale legal counsel, Yale President and Yale Corporation have a strategy. Whatever it is, it does not include transparency and setting an example for other colleges. Reminds me of last night’s news piece on the medical research scandal at Duke where administration interviewed said they wanted to come out to explain how it happened to serve as a lesson to other universities. Yale could serve as a shining example to other colleges dealing with Title IX complaint issues by answering:

      What persons – whether employed by Yale or students at Yale – broke the confidentiality clause entrusted to them as part of the informal complaint process?
      What consequences will they suffer?

      Who had knowledge of the September complaint and what Yale officials were informed of the accused’s identity? Was the name of the accused known by Yale officials who knew he was an active Rhodes candidate? Why did Yale not officially and swiftly inform Rhodes of the informal complaint (Rhodes likely would have asked for the re-endorsement at that time)?

      What are the names of the roogue people that took it upon themselves to be “anonymous” sources to the NY Times? Will Yale fire them for their transgressions?

      How is Yale going to adjust its processes so it does not happen again?

  • Justine

    Another take…

    Any thoughts on Yale taking the offense by filing a complaint against the Federal Government for requiring it to act as the police and judge in matters that involve real criminal accusations (harrassment and assault, etc.)?

    Who is ultimately libel if Yale is sued? Yale or the Federal Government which mandates it handle accusations of criminal conduct?

    Aren’t universities places of education not ajudication? Other colleges must be subject to the same liability and problematic issues with handling Title IX sexual misconduct and assault complaints. Why doesn’t Yale lead a class action lawsuit with other colleges to show they are not libel for processes that should be handled by law enforcement.

    Maybe the mandated complaint process is inherently flawed and Yale is its victim.

  • mrmike527

    It makes no sense to me that Yale didn’t come out and immediately stand behind Witt. The informal complaint process promises that no consequences will come of the report. Part of that means that there is no fact-finding that occurs, and that the accused has no formal process by which he can defend him or herself. I personally find this to be a reasonable solution to make victims of sexual assault on campus more comfortable seeking help. If there are truly no consequences for either side, and the only result is that the two parties are asked to stay away from each other, that seems like a good way to support a person who feels victimized without making the victim do something they don’t want to.

    But a necessary element of a complaint that doesn’t search for facts is that there are no consequences that stem from it. And very clearly in Witt’s case, there were consequences. Confidentiality was leaked and Yale refused comment. If Witt hadn’t had this complaint brought about him–or, for that matter, if the complaint was brought and he was exonerated–would Yale really not have stood behind him and made it clear that they support him? There were extremely real consequences for Witt as a result of this, and all that it took to bring those consequences was an accusation. That should be extremely scary to people, and not just to men, because as far as I know, there’s no limitation on who can accuse who through this process.

    If every Brother in DKE made an informal complaint towards Mary Miller, and the New York Times broke a story that said “Yale Dean accused of sexually assaulting 60+ undergraduate males,” would Yale’s reaction be the same? Would they refuse to fact-find as part of the complaint process, and not release any sort of formal support for Dean Miller? Why should it be any different for students?

    The bottom line is that this campus needs something like the informal complaint process to allow victims of sexual assault an avenue to seek support from the administration without feeling uncomfortable doing so. However, it also needs to be a process that cannot be taken advantage of. Whether Witt was guilty or not, I cannot pass judgment, as I know neither Witt nor his situation. But what I think his situation brought to light is that while I have no reason to believe Witt’s accuser is being dishonest, any other person who wished to take advantage of the process is free to do so. If Yale is going to treat students who are accused through this process differently than it treats other students–and refuses to do any fact finding regarding the guilt of the accused–this reeks of a program built to cover Yale’s own ass while selling out the Yale undergraduates.

    • Justine

      Is it common practice for universities to want to silence or “make go away” complaints of violence and sexual harassment and assault in particular?

      Do covering up crime statistics on campus make a university look safer and thereby help boost revenues vs. a high crime campus that scares away new students?

      Are the other Ivy universities also covering up sexual harassment and assault reporting and encouraging victims to not pursue legal action? Is it a systemic problem in which all young woman are at risk?

      Seems to me it is clear that a buyer beware approach is best for all female college students nationwide. Come armed with a lawyer and speed dial to 911 and your local police office should anything happen to you. Do not go to university officials whose interest is protecting their busines. Crime stats on campus – assuming they are even published – gives pause to discerning new admits and causes concern with alumni and donors. Follow the money.

    • penny_lane

      Yale could not have made any such statement about Witt without breaking its promise to the alleged victim. Clearly there are flaws in the system that allowed Witt no means to clear his name, but I think Yale did the best it could given the situation in remaining silent on the issue.

      • Bouchet

        Yale could have simply re-endorsed Witt without making reference to any claim. There is no claim on Witt’s Yale record, right? Based on that, Yale could have said “We endorse Witt’s candidacy.” They could have not commented on specific questions about any sexual assault inquiry.

        • penny_lane

          But Witt withdrew his candidacy before Yale needed to make an official decision, which renders your point quite moot.

  • EarlyBird

    Why the assumption that it was a Yale staffer that blew the whistle? My guess is that someone close to the complainant felt Mr. Witt had emerged from the situation unscathed, got a case of righteous indignation and started making some calls.

  • joey00

    If the local cops are being told that internal complaints at Yale are none of their business than i suppose the general public should mind it’s own affairs too ? Not..Sorry but i can’t help think about murdered Yale student Susanne Jovin – It was on record,in the news , which includes on-line reporting, that she filed an official complaint against someone.Maybe it was resolved.
    Maybe not.I’m not saying that person who the complaint was lodged against was involved in her murder,but an issue of confidentiality and malfeasance occured in regards

  • The Anti-Yale

    I doubt the NYT would have entertained the story if a former YDN editor had not supplemented the NYT journalist’s information, including whatever anonymous campus sources the former YDN staffer had acquired.

    It is not only the lack of names, but of dates, times, places, charges, statements, witnesses, which makes the journalitistic focus on Mr. Witt’s character so corrosive, intentional or not.

    It is a case of Daniel Ellsberg. not only without any Pentagon but even without any papers.

    Or a Rosemary Wood without not only any White House tapes at all around which to infer the substance of a “missing” tape, but without even a tape-recorder and a foot-pedal.

    It is, as Archibal Macleish says in a famous poem,

    “Nothing, nothing, nothing at all.”

    And that my friends the price price of anonymity—–also known as cowardice, also known as protection.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80,

    M.A., M.Ed.

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