The independent news organization of Duke University

Is going through the reporting process worth it?

column

In a 2018 campus-wide survey, 48% of female undergraduates reported having been sexually assaulted since coming to Duke. This means over 1,700 undergraduate women have been sexually assaulted, a statistic that even Larry Moneta suggested was under-representative. Yet in the 2018-2019 academic year, only 169 reports were made to the Office of Student Conduct. Those numbers don’t add up.

Jayne Grandes, Assistant Vice President of Title IX Compliance at Duke, says she’d like to see more victims report. Before doing research for this column, I would’ve wholeheartedly agreed. In my mind, every survivor’s contribution to the reporting system would improve it for others who choose to come forward in the future. But I did not comprehend just how time-consuming, traumatizing and demoralizing it can be for a survivor to report. Now I’m torn. Why should a survivor report when that process at Duke will likely do them more harm than good?

For a student seeking to report, the odds of receiving a positive result are practically insurmountable. Of the 169 reports made last year, only nine were referred for investigation. Six of those resulted in hearings. Three individuals were found responsible. Out of 169—three. Those are the odds survivors are up against.

What’s more, survivors may feel that reporting is more trouble than it’s worth. Sabrina Maciariello, a senior, was assaulted in January of her freshman year and reasoned that she had “nothing to gain” from reporting. “The issue wasn’t that he was going to contact me or that I was afraid he’d do it again. The issue was just that it happened,” she said. 

Already burdened by the trauma of the assault and the pressure of maintaining normalcy in the face of unrelenting academic, extracurricular and social obligations, Maciariello was in no position to prioritize what she assumed to be restorative justice.

The trauma forced upon many victims of sexual assault is immobilizing. Another survivor—let’s call him Ben—recalled that the day after his assault, he had four panic attacks. The weeks and months following weren’t much easier. “Your brain can’t cope. Finishing your homework and getting to your classes becomes really difficult,” he said.

While reporting soon after an assault occurs may make it easier to gather evidence, this isn’t the first thing on a survivor’s mind. Even if Maciariello had wanted to report, she certainly wasn’t emotionally able to do so right after her assault. After a friend accidentally called the Office of Student Conduct (OSC) the night of her assault, Maciariello received three emails the following morning—one from OSC, one from the Women’s Center and one from DukeReach. Overwhelmed and distraught, Maciariello neglected to respond to any of the emails. She wouldn’t seek therapy until three months later.

Survivors face this trauma, isolation and shame even without a sexual assault investigation hanging over their heads. Amy Cleckler, MPH and former Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Intervention coordinator at the Women’s Center, attests that the reporting process can compound a survivor’s distress. 

“The reporting process, even handled as efficiently, fairly, and supportively as possible, can create additional stress and trauma,” she told me. 

If the reporting process is carried out until a final verdict is issued, “the stress of telling and retelling the events, sitting down for a hearing in the same room as your perpetrator, and being questioned about extremely personal details can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD,” she said.

In theory, reporting doesn’t have to require substantial commitment by the survivor. Jayne Grandes notes that every report contributes in some way to OSC’s understanding of sexual assault on campus. 

“Reporting doesn’t mean a complainant has to go through the investigative process; they can just tell us what they want to share, and what they need, so we can best support them," she told me. "It also gives us more information as to what’s happening so we can improve our prevention and response efforts.”

Such a perspective seems logical and fits the needs of some survivors. But for many others, in the weeks and months that follow an assault, merely admitting that they’ve been assaulted is terrifying. As Cleckler contends, “when even those closest to a survivor cannot always provide support without doubt or judgment, it makes it harder for survivors to imagine telling their story to a total stranger, like a police officer or a Duke administrator.” 

Ben describes a “psychological distance” between a survivor’s state right after an assault and many months after, as survivors slowly process and come to terms with their trauma. Such distance from the event may finally allow survivors to confront the option of reporting. “If the system was totally informed, that arc would be accounted for.”

Two years after her assault, Maciariello decided to consider reporting. Her therapist recommended she call Victoria Krebs, Associate Dean of Students for Title IX Outreach and Response, to discuss her options. After asking Maciariello to summarize her story and what documentation she had, Krebs asserted that Maciariello didn’t have enough evidence to prove that she had even gone to her assailant’s dorm room that night, let alone that an assault actually occurred. 

Maciariello reminded me of Krebs’ responsibility to mediate liability: “It’s her literal job to prevent you from making a case in order to protect the school.” While Grandes assures that not all OSC employees must consider the potential for negative press in these cases, OSC is still forced to weigh the liability Duke could incur if they fail to adequately address an assault with, say, a possible hit to the University’s reputation if the case is publicized or a potential lawsuit filed by the assailant.

It’s unrealistic to expect a survivor to keep the kind of robust records required to implicate an assailant, especially considering that at least 50% of all student sexual assaults involve alcohol. Maciariello recalls how similar circumstances thwarted her case. 

“When he left the room, I couldn’t text because I was so drunk," she recounted to me. "I could only call. All I had (from that night) was an outbound call to my friend, and he had an Uber receipt to his dorm.” 

If Maciariello was so drunk she couldn’t send a text, she clearly wasn’t able to consent to any sexual activity. But this reasoning, no matter how common, wasn’t enough to appease the system. Victoria Krebs was right—Maciariello had no concrete evidence to support a case against her assailant. And without a case, she was effectively forced to give up.

Many students, 17% of the 169 last year, choose to seek a “No Contact” Directive rather than a formal investigation. A “No Contact” Directive, effectively an on-campus restraining order, offers an appealing option for survivors who don’t want to proceed with a formal reporting process but who seek to prevent any potential future communication with their assailant. However, even this can be daunting, as it requires that the assailant be informed of the report lodged against them. Duke’s relatively small campus and tight social networks leave survivors more vulnerable to backlash from the assailant or their friends. 

Perhaps survivors do have something to gain from reporting. But they also have plenty to lose—their dignity, the coping skills they’ve worked so hard to incorporate, and any confidence that their experiences are legitimate. Every survivor’s story matters, but not every story can stand up to the system. As a woman at Duke who wants to see the reporting process improve long-term, I’d theoretically like to see more survivors report. But now that I see the reality of that process—even as removed from the direct experience of survivors as I am—if I was in a similar situation, I don’t know that I would choose to report. I think I’d choose myself. 

And for many survivors, reporting and healing are mutually exclusive.

Rebecca Torrence is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. 

Comments