There’s something you should know about Walker’s proposal on college sexual assault reporting

As the work week wound down, one of the big headlines here in Wisconsin was that Scott Walker didn’t want colleges to report sexual assaults. Highlighted were amendments to ss. chapter 36 in the proposed changes to the state budget and state statutes that would eliminate current requirements for (1) university staff to report to central administration and (2) for the campuses to report to the system the statistic counts of known incidents of sexual assault.

Soon after the story broke, UW System administration and the Governor’s office acknowledged that the System had been asking for the removal of these requirements (conveniently omitted were details on the complex, confusing, and inefficient nature this dual reporting responsibility at the campus level as well as how the request has probably been repeated annually for years).

Jezebel, the first piece I saw on the matter, has already added a mea culpa at the top of its previously published article. I by no means intend to defend Walker. But the public ire on this issue is unfortunately misplaced and misinformed, and that’s good news for Scott Walker right now.

The deletion of the statutory requirements regarding sexual assault are absolutely important, but they are more reflective of bad (and successful) political optics, rather than sound policy.

It is a terrible idea, politically, to appear like you’re soft on the issue of campus sexual assault. If you’re thinking about making a run for national political office, you definitely do not want to risk alienating 50% of the electorate (who tend to vote disproportionately high). But if you can get some media coverage on the issue, while it also distracts from the very real negative outcomes likely from the proposed budget cut and changes to campus governance, you look “unintimidated” in the face of liberal media attacks. Republican voters will only have their positive opinions about you and negative opinions about the mainstream media reinforced because you’re unfairly criticized without all the facts (still underreported) known about the issue! It’s a win-win, politically.

Unless…

When I saw the Jezebel article, it was accompanied with Facebook comments of exasperation and attacks on the governor. Of course, as the internet is wont, the opinions shared had nothing of substance and discussed nothing proactive.

Friday night, I talked with a colleague at another system institution, and we shared the same laugh about how, as a practical matter, the changes to the statutes don’t actually matter and actually do make some of our work more efficient. Here’s how:

UW System is required to annually report the numbers of sexual assaults reported to campus staff, no matter when or where these assaults took place, and categorize them by one of four degrees as defined in state statute, which is also the way our campus policies define sexual assaults perpetrated by students (a terrible way of doing things from a student conduct administration perspective, but that’s a whole other matter).

The Clery Act requires campuses to report sexual assaults as forcible or non-forcible (changing under the updated rules taking effect soon). These two categories had overlap with the state statutes, when they occurred in the reporting years or in Clery reportable locations, requiring university staff at each campus to spend time sifting through each individual report–some anonymous with little detail–to make sure the incidents were categorized correctly and not miscounted or double reported to the respective government entities. Erring in the federal report could result in a fine of $35,000 per miscount, even if you over count. 

Since I began working in the UW System in 2012, I have heard criticisms of the dual reporting structure from numerous colleagues across the System. You can imagine it is challenging to take anonymous reports of disclosures from our confidential reporting sources and cross reference those with known reports through police and other channels, to try and make sure we’re not double counting for each report and that the numbers accurately reflect the information known.

And so, for as long as I’ve been around, which isn’t long I’ll admit, my colleagues from across the state, who do the work day-to-day, have complained (and no doubt advocated up the chain in meetings I’m not invited to) that the dual reporting unnecessarily complicates both reporting to our communities and our overseers. Why couldn’t we at least report using the same definitions of sexual assault, specifically the uniform criminal definition for Clery?

So the message went up to the UW System to lobby the state for change. Clery rules for over 4000 schools aren’t going to change just because our 26 campuses are inconvenienced by our legislature’s rules. And until any change occurs, the System isn’t going to say to the campus leadership to skip the Clery reporting, and of course risk our federal financial aid or substantial fines, in favor of focusing on the state definitions report alone.

Getting back to the budget proposal: Those quick to attack the governor on his proposed changes overlooked other examples of when state government was taken out of the way to make things work best by the people who do the work. In the state statutes granting public authority status to the UW Hospital and Clinics (ss. chapter 233), there is not a single reference to the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which guarantees patients privacy of their medical records (note: whether this was the case at any point since the mid-90s when both HIPAA and the hospital were established is not known to me, but it’s not currently referenced today). Does that mean the hospital shirks its federal obligations because its not currently in state law? Of course not. 

Of course the UW System–at least the people on the front lines who are committed to the educational mission and civil rights–are going to work to be better than compliant on the issues of interpersonal violence and gender equity. The real problem is that the budget proposal legitimately undermines our work in ways not discussed in the media.

This story, which when analyzed seems just too perfectly planned to be coincidence, serves Walker’s interests. Once the story broke that his budget proposal cut the reporting requirements, the System, possibly directed by the governor’s office, has to come out and say, “it’s not his fault, we asked for this” and Walker gets to look like his proposed statutory changes to reporting requirements are in the best interest of the system (which is true). He looks fine in the media, Jezebel and other media outlets have to backtrack, and the System has a little egg on their face because the reasons for requesting the change are too complicated for a soundbite or the AP wire. Walker supporters and Republicans generally laugh about this latest media gaffe and feel better about their chances in 2016.

And all of this obscures the real problems related to the Walker’s budget proposal and the issues of interpersonal violence at the UW System schools: The $300 million budget cut for the next two years – amounting to an estimated 2.5% or more of each individual campus’s total budget, and maybe much more for the county extensions – will do real damage to the ability of each campus to adequately serve and support victims of interpersonal violence, as well as to undertake the federally mandated responsibilities to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

Issuing “block grants” to the system forces difficult decisions upon campus priorities including federal responsibilities for compliance, debt obligations, contracts for employees, grant matching for existing research and programs, and staffing, hiring, and benefits. The dollars allocated will closely reflect the value of those priorities. If a campus decides on cuts to, say, victim services or investigative staff, Walker is insulated from the negative consequences of those decisions.

The draconian budget cuts, to shore up Walker’s failed budget of two years ago where his tax cuts failed to lead to increased economic growth and a net gain in state revenue, will further damage the UW System and the state. The collateral damage isn’t just the laid off employees; student victims will bear the consequences as well.

Students will have reduced contact to the remaining overburdened administrators and instructors who will be forced to be more “efficient.”  If you’ve got limited time and have more advisees, students in class, and projects because your colleagues were kicked to the curb, then its perfectly conceivable that even the best teachers will have to cut down on the time they spend one-on-one with students. On our campuses, instructors and staff often have the relationships with students that afford the opportunity to see warning signs of issues of concern.

Students may have felt comfortable reporting interpersonal violence precisely because it impacts their student experience in academics or involvement, or manifests in other behaviors of concern. When our relationships with students are diminished through the limitations of time and space due to the budget cuts, victims have reduced options on how to exercise agency in their own recovery: Imagine a situation where a student is struggling with anxiety from an assault or stalking or an abusive partner, and that anxiety is impacting their academic performance. If they seeks counseling or crisis services as the only course of action, that’s a great start, and the confidential counselor can of course share about reporting options and recommend avenues for academic support.

But if the student feels isolated from instructors due to being unable to see them in reduced office hour availability or because staying after class is not private enough, all the efforts to manage their anxiety through counseling are not going to get them the needed academic accommodations. If that instructor or advisor is buried in their work, it’ll be too late before they notice the student’s decline in performance before the end of the semester. The student is not going to request accommodations for the impact of a sexual assault via email, even if that is technically the most efficient means of requesting them.

Beyond the initial support and reparative measures, overburdened investigators will find themselves unable to resolve cases effectively with fair and thorough investigations, which are already often inconceivably difficult. Perpetrators may be able to continue on without being held accountable. Suboptimal investigations foster distrust in the system. All our efforts to encourage reporting will ultimately fail if students perceive the investigations as ineffective (I would consider optimal investigations to be fair and just in process, even if one of the parties ultimately feels unsatisfied with the specific outcomes).

As long as interpersonal violence affects any one of our students, we can be sure that these budget cuts will negatively impact their success on our campuses and after. And that’s what should really outrage us. It’s not the optics or the politics. It’s how these policies play out in the messy reality that is the college campus.

So if you were up in arms about Walker’s proposed changes to the UW System statutes regarding sexual assault, don’t just let that fire die with the clarification from the System administration where they take responsibility for the amendment to ss. 36.

If you’re not from Wisconsin, advocate for our students by contacting the members of the Joint Committee on Finance who have the most power over the direction of this budget bill and voicing your concerns about these budget cuts.

Wisconsin residents: Direct your concerns at your legislator and the JCF because if they go along with these budget cuts as proposed (to say nothing of the granting of public authority status scheduled to take effect in just over 16 months without any semblance of a System plan in place on how the new governance will be operationalized), then they are complicit in the further marginalization of victims, responsible for the failure to serve these students appropriately.

If you decide to sit on the sidelines, then you’re complicit too.

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