Trauma-Informed Dispute

Association of college administrators that deal with campus sexual assaults prompts controversy with a new recommendation not to overrely on the behavior of traumatized victims to determine the veracity of their claims.

September 17, 2019
 

Investigators of campus sexual assaults usually avoid bluntly asking victims to recall their attacks in vivid detail. This “trauma-informed” approach is used widely in investigations and is based on the belief that officials should not subject rape survivors to reliving such disturbing experiences without an empathetic ear.

The theory of trauma-informed care also offers an explanation as to why survivors might behave oddly in an interview, such as remembering only vivid details or describing them out of order when discussing their assault. Campus administrators say using this investigative practice is the best way to gather information and figure out the timeline of an incident without greatly upsetting a victim.

The association representing college administrators who investigate and adjudicate sexual violence cases on campuses has suggested some officials have taken this approach too far.

The Association of Title IX Administrators -- named for the federal law banning sex discrimination on campus -- published a statement last month contending that officials have sometimes not conducted thorough investigations into sexual assault claims. ATIXA says there have been cases when officials overlooked a lack of evidence in a sexual assault case because they believe trauma-related symptoms exhibited by a sexual assault victim likely prove the incident occurred.

The association asserts there is insufficient research to definitively prove that memory is affected by a sexual assault and how survivors respond to trauma long-term. ATIXA says administrators have “extrapolated” from existing studies far too much.

ATIXA’s claims have enraged some campus-based officials who specialize in the sex-discrimination law and investigate cases, as well as sexual assault survivor advocates. Those critics say ATIXA’s statement is a publicity grab.

“This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what trauma-informed practices actually mean,” said Taylor Parker, a consultant with Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC and the compliance coordinator and deputy Title IX coordinator at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.

ATIXA released its seven-page position statement last month after association representatives noticed an “unhealthy direction in the field,” according to the statement. The association publishes these statements infrequently -- only as a “nuclear option,” when it wants to send a strong message to the entire field, said Brett Sokolow​, the association's president.

The statement notes that the trauma response to a sexual assault is a particularly controversial subject and cites a highly contentious 2017 article in The Atlantic blasting the work of experts who have studied the neurobiology of trauma and calling it "junk science."

ATIXA’s statement said studies of the trauma-informed approach are incomplete.

“They are interesting to hear and definitely worth our time and thought, but they are perhaps like Copernicus, who asserted the Earth revolved around the sun long before there was any proof that it actually did,” the statement says of researchers focused on neurobiology and trauma. “If you listened to Copernicus in 1514 and decided as a result that heliocentrism was true, you were working off of theory at the time, not empirical science. It would be another 50 years before Kepler and Galileo elevated that theory to an observable working hypothesis. With our current level of neuroscientific understandings of trauma, we essentially are in 1514, and we have a lot of brilliant Copernicans around, but it will be another 50 years until we get to Galileo.”

Activists who defend the rights of those unfairly accused of sexual violence have seized on the Atlantic article and now the ATIXA statement to bolster arguments that the campus processes for adjudicating these cases are biased against the accused and lack due process.

These activists routinely disparage the Obama administration’s 2011 guidance for how colleges should adjudicate sex assault cases. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded those rules two years ago.

Sokolow said he hasn’t paid attention to responses from these groups, which include Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, or SAVE, and Families Advocating For Campus Equality (FACE).

ATIXA isn’t completely opposed to trauma-informed approaches, Sokolow said, But he's concerned that it is routinely being used to supersede the investigative process.

At one university that Sokolow declined to name, a panel charged with making a decision on a sex assault case did not ask any questions of a survivor because the group had been advised that doing so would “re-traumatize” her. The accused student was found responsible for the assault but was not punished because he appealed, Sokolow said.

“We don’t want a trauma-informed approach to get in the way of learning evidence,” he said.

Sokolow said association members largely agree with the statement, which was vetted and voted on by ATIXA’s 20-member advisory board before being made public. But Title IX coordinators also believe the statement is “piling on,” Sokolow said.

These coordinators are frequently accused by survivor advocates and due process organizations of botching sexual assault investigations. They've also been involved in more court battles as Title IX-related lawsuits have skyrocketed, Sokolow said. This difficult work environment has resulted in high turnover in the profession. About two-thirds of Title IX coordinators have been in their positions for less than three years, according to a 2018 ATIXA survey.

Parker, the Title IX coordinator from Ringling College, didn’t think the statement was a matter of “right message, wrong time,” as Sokolow described it. She said she was angry.

“This is a publicity stunt,” she said, adding that she was not speaking on behalf of the college. “They want to find the next controversial statement and chisel out an area in the market. I think they are creating a problem that doesn’t exist so they can fix it.”

ATIXA’s statement includes a footnote saying that an association kit containing “best practices” for trauma-informed interviews can be purchased by members for free or at a discount. It can be purchased online by nonmembers for $499.

Laura Dunn, founder L. L. Dunn Law Firm PLLC and the survivor advocacy group SurvJustice, also dismissed the report as a publicity stunt.

Dunn said trauma-informed practices can counteract the often discriminatory tactics law enforcement uses to unearth details about sex assaults. The Justice Department outlined bias in the questioning of sexual assault and domestic violence victims during police investigations in a 2015 report.

Dunn said she did not agree with relying solely on victims' behavior as a way to corroborate that a sexual assault occurred, but that behavior should be noted in an investigation.

“Perhaps ATIXA wants to seem reasonable and middle-of-the-road in issuing this statement, but its drafting and tone are unprofessional and at times pretentious,” she said.

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