For one survivor, school’s legal focus causes troubles

When Anna Livia Chen ’17 told her Resident Assistant (RA) that she did not want to participate in her orientation’s Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) workshop, she thought she would be protecting herself. She had been sexually abused a few years earlier, and she thought the conversations could be triggering. It never occurred to her that missing this workshop would ultimately lead the administration to report her case to child services, and that she would spend the next months uncertain about whether her family would be contacted by the California police.

Chen’s ASAP facilitator, upon hearing about her sexual assault, became concerned that it might need to be reported, given that Chen was a minor both when she was assaulted and at that time. The ASAP facilitator, with Chen’s permission, asked her RA, Treasure Tinsley ’15, to talk to Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head and ask, as a required reporter, whether this kind of case hypothetically fit into the category of cases she was responsible for reporting. Tinsley was given the impression during RA training that unless there was a clear and present danger to the student, cases that happened prior to coming on campus did not need to be reported. Still, she talked to Head. The assistant dean did not think that this would be a problem, but that she had to check with Patricia Flaherty Fischette, interim Title IX coordinator, to make sure.

According to Chen, Tinsley said that Head and Fischette ultimately decided that they were satisfied with the information given under Title IX laws and that it would merely be reported to Public Safety and the school’s lawyers for college statistics under the Clery Act.

“Patricia reached out to me via e-mail to make her support known and clarify my available resources, but otherwise my RA and I were told that this would be the end of the issue,” Chen said.

Public Safety and the lawyers, however, wanted to report the case to child services. Fischette, in turn, said that if Chen’s therapist had made a report already, the case would be closed. Under Pennsylvania state law, therapists are mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect.

When Chen talked to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Director David Ramirez, though, she found that her school therapist had not reported the assault. Pennsylvania state law says that child sexual abuse must be reported to the state by any individual generally responsible for the care or guidance of the victim, including confidential mental health professionals in private and public institutions, regardless of how long ago it took place. Ramirez, who could not discuss the specifics of the case with The Phoenix, told Chen and Tinsley that he had consulted with lawyers and concluded that he did not have to report.

A case like hers did not fit under the jurisdiction of Title IX either.

Head and Fischette were also not able to comment on this specific case.

Still, Public Safety insisted on reporting her case to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services, though they told Chen they would not use her home address. This would in theory prevent the report from reaching her home state’s child protective services and consequently, her family.

But when Child and Youth Services reached out to her, they said that in absence of explicit information about the place of the incident, they were legally obligated to pass the report along to the California police with the address and contact information they had. It is not clear whether the school provided the information Chen did not want released, or if Child and Youth Services obtained it on their own. Angry, Tinsley sent an e-mail to relevant administrators, Director of Public Safety Mike Hill included. She did not receive a response. Chen also sent a message that got no response from the administration. She was in the dark and worried about what would happen next.

“It’s pathetic for the administration to put students through a situation like this one and then not follow up with them when they raise concerns about their practices,” Tinsley said. “It makes me feel like they didn’t even listen to any of the actual reasons people were upset last spring … that they’re just trying to overcompensate.”

Chen has not been contacted by California police yet.

Still, she has questions about the way in which the college is protecting victims of assault, despite taking the law into greater consideration than in previous years. The lack of transparency is a crucial component of this issue.

“If I had known that this was going to escalate in the way that it did, I wouldn’t have disclosed that much information,” Chen said. “It is fine that [administrators] are still forming all the details of how this policy will look like in practice. That does not mean that they can lie to students and act like they have it all figured out, hurting students such as myself in the process.”

Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate and Educator Nina Harris said that a fine line exists between respecting the law and the survivor, especially when the two things come into conflict.

“I think it’s good that we are in a responsive place. The pendulum may have swung a little far left in the effort to respond … and some of it is liability, but I do think people want to make sure that they’re doing the right thing,” she said. “Still, if you’re doing the right thing in terms of the law, are you doing the right things in terms of the survivor?”

Harris said that learning how to walk that line is important.

Chen thinks that the first step in addressing this possible conflict is to make the procedures clear.

“The fear of this being reported was the reason I didn’t talk about it to anyone for years,” Chen said. “The fact that I put so much energy into avoiding this and then ended up in a situation where it happened anyway was really disappointing and upsetting.”

Harris agrees. She expressed the concern that policies are being thoroughly discussed only after there are crises.

“We need to be clear about the protection individuals have so that they can make the choice about how they engage [with the college],” she said. “This is a community where we need more transparency, more openness.”

As the administration adopts new policies and procedures to protect victims of sexual assault, the very fact that change is occurring can have the counter-productive effect of making the process less accessible to the people it is supposed to protect. Unclear or as-yet-unstated policies, Harris said, limit the ability of survivors to make informed decisions.

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