We’ve seen the picture: a woman with duct tape stuck across her mouth, depicting a sexual assault survivor. The brave actions of many survivors, male and female, and the Me Too movement have begun the process of removing the tape and allowing survivors to use their voices.
How we in education support and protect survivors has tremendous implications, not only for them but also for many other people. From the perspective of a university president and as the commander of the United States Air Force Academy, I recognize that, unfortunately, no organization is immune to the corrosive damage that sexual assault and sexual harassment inflicts in our academic institutions, and throughout our society. Our Air Force Academy has addressed this issue publicly in the past, and we are committed to vigilantly confronting it now and in the future -- actively researching and learning what approaches are effective, as well as refining our methods where we are falling short.
The prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment is an issue we all share, and finding progress will require a collaborative effort toward solutions. To that end, in recent months we have participated, alongside Department of Defense and civilian institutions, in a Senate Armed Services Committee roundtable discussion and have collaborated with civilian university leadership at the National Summit on Sexual Assault hosted at the United States Naval Academy. Furthering that collaborative spirit, I would like to share a process that has been in place within the military for years to ensure support for our survivors -- a process that I hope might also be useful for my peers at civilian institutions.
Experiencing sexual assault can be so traumatic that most survivors never tell anyone, let alone report it to authorities. When asked on anonymous surveys, most victims share that they do not report because they are concerned about retaliation, not being believed, not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble and not wanting anyone to know or because they did not think it was important enough to report. When a victim does report, it is often because they want to stop the perpetrator from hurting someone else, they feel it is the right thing to do, they are seeking justice or they are seeking protection from further harm. When a victim reports a sexual assault, it also gives communities and authorities information to potentially stop a perpetrator and to prevent future assaults.
In addition, for many victims, reporting can help them start the healing process. As university administrators, we play a vital role in ensuring that the removal of tape begins that process rather than inflicting more harm. Our reaction to their story, and the reaction of our communities, make that difference.
Throughout the United States military, a victim of sexual assault can make a restricted or unrestricted report. A restricted report allows the victim to get services like medical care, counseling services, an official record of the incident -- and, at the same time, to protect their privacy. Restricted reports, however, do not involve an investigation of the crime. In contrast, if a person chooses to make an unrestricted report, all helping services are still available to them, and a criminal investigation is conducted.
At the Air Force Academy and all other military bases, once a survivor makes an unrestricted report of a sexual assault, we also convene a monthly meeting known as the Case Management Group, which is essentially a multidisciplinary team that meets to discuss the well-being of a survivor. The meetings are so crucial that the base commander chairs them, and in the case of the academy, they are chaired by the superintendent -- a role I now serve in that is equivalent to that of the university president.
The group also includes the survivor’s commander, a chaplain, our director of culture and climate, the survivor’s victim advocate, the sexual assault response coordinator (similar to a Title IX coordinator), the survivor’s lawyer (when applicable), law enforcement officials and our equivalent of general counsel. The goal of the meetings is to discuss the support and needs of each survivor. The survivor is notified before each meeting and given an opportunity to share his or her thoughts or concerns with the group through his or her representative. In addition, the survivor’s commander has 72 hours following the meeting to update the survivor on what was discussed during the meeting.
To translate this process for civilian institutions, imagine if a student reported a sexual assault to the Title IX coordinator, and every month after the report, the university president, the registrar, a medical provider, spiritual leaders (where applicable), a law enforcement officer, the student’s resident assistant, the general counsel, the Title IX coordinator and the survivor’s victim advocate met to discuss the needs of that survivor. Similar to the military’s process, the survivor would have the opportunity to share anything with the group through his or her victim advocate, lawyer or other representative.
The model provides a forum to ensure that survivors are receiving the proper care, support and respect after making a report, and that they are not experiencing any retaliation. It also provides an opportunity for the survivor to have a voice and communicate with military/university leaders. The presence of individuals from various disciplines guarantees that a survivor does not slip through the cracks and that any needs or challenges can be thoroughly discussed and addressed at the meeting.
For example, if a survivor’s commander points out that they aren’t sure how to best support a survivor without being intrusive, the mental health professionals, victim advocate and chaplain can share their expertise in survivor support to help educate and equip the commander. In addition, if the commander reports that the survivor is having behavior problems, those same professionals can provide education on the effects of trauma as well as share best practices or resources so that the commander can best support the survivor.
The presence of senior academy leaders also helps to remove bureaucratic barriers when a survivor needs to adjust his or her academic schedule, change residence to avoid continued interaction with the accused, or miss class for a period of time to allow for emotional or physical healing. At the meetings, all these actions can be discussed and implemented without the normal red tape of the military or a university. In addition, the presence of senior leaders provides institutional backing for the decisions and demonstrates institutional support for the survivor.
Educating for Best Practices
A somewhat unintended but positive result of the Case Management Group is that it gives leaders in the room, who influence policy on our campus, insight into a survivor’s experience and how they can impact a culture based on real-time information about survivors and their experiences. The presence of victim advocates as well as medical and mental health professionals provides a regular opportunity to educate members of the group about counterintuitive behavior, victimology and the best practices to enable healing.
In one instance at the Air Force Academy, a discussion about the role of alcohol in a particular case resulted in immediate institutional changes to how alcohol is served on the campus and the level of supervision at the on-campus bar. In another instance, feedback about the emotional toll of the investigative and court process on a survivor resulted in a policy that authorized commanders to place a survivor on “bed rest,” allowing them to miss class and other mandatory military events to provide them adequate time for self-care and healing.
Although a military academy has distinct aspects, many of these same support mechanisms could apply in the university setting. Universities are now given additional flexibility through the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance to offer survivors additional supportive measures such as schedule changes and housing reassignments. A Campus Management Group at a university would provide the perfect forum to implement such measures with the benefit of the survivor’s input, expert advice and institutional buy-in.
Along with tremendous benefits, the model also has potential pitfalls. For example, upon hearing that all of these individuals meet monthly to discuss a survivor, some readers might be concerned that such a meeting could create issues of privacy, collusion, privilege and confidentiality. Thus, everyone at table who has privileged communications with a survivor must understand the bounds of that privilege and obtain the survivor’s consent before sharing any confidential information. At our Case Management Group, we ensure that chaplains, victim advocates and mental health providers understand that they are to provide general information and expertise but not privileged information unless released by the survivor.
Another concern might be that bringing all these individuals together to “talk about” the survivor might disempower that person. Thus, the feedback loop with the survivor is essential. Seeking their input before the meeting and sharing the results of the meeting afterward lets the survivor know that the purpose of the group is to give them a voice -- and not just place tape back on their mouth and tell them what the university believes is best.
As recent news stories have shown, the military and service academies have not solved this problem, nor are we without our flaws. But we believe that the Case Management Group is a best practice that helps us support survivors by empowering their voices and cutting through the bureaucracy that often harms more than heals survivors. To those who say that asking senior university leaders to use their time to attend such a meeting every month is too much, we strongly disagree. Encouraging survivors to come forward to report a sexual assault is asking them to make an incredibly difficult decision that will change their lives. Taking a few hours out of our time every month to ensure that when those survivors do come forward, they are heard and supported is the least that we can do.
At the United States Naval Academy summit, leaders from 120 colleges and universities, our nation’s service academies, and Department of Defense experts all gathered for two days to discuss sexual assault and sexual harassment at our institutions. From the discussions at this summit, I am even more confident that the amount of learning, dialogue and problem solving that occurs in our Case Management Group meetings is tremendous and benefits not only the individual survivors and meeting attendees, but the institution and community as a whole. I am also more confident that we must all share our successes and failures, and collectively work toward progress and solutions. We are all in this together, and we have to do better.