Q&A: How the process of reporting and investigating sexual misconduct works

The University of Chicago is committed to ensuring an environment in which all members of the University community can participate fully. Sarah Wake, Title IX coordinator for the University and associate provost & director of the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, and Michele Rasmussen, dean of students in the University, recently spoke with UChicago News about the processes for reporting, investigating and adjudicating allegations of sexual misconduct involving students. Read their Q&A about Title IX-related issues here.

There seem to be some misconceptions about why reported instances of sexual misconduct don’t always lead to formal disciplinary hearings. Can you help explain that?

Wake: We receive reports from a variety of sources, not always from the students themselves. Any time we receive information from a faculty member, staff member, a student, or another source that one of our students has possibly experienced sexual misconduct, we count that as a report.  With every report, we reach out to the affected student and invite them to meet with us to learn additional information about resources, reporting to law enforcement, and engaging in the University’s disciplinary process. Sometimes they choose not to meet with us, which is one reason why there are more reports than disciplinary hearings. 

The second reason for the discrepancy is that the students who meet with us may receive support, resources and accommodations but still choose to not participate in an investigation. Federal guidance requires us to honor that request in almost all circumstances. I think it is important that we allow students to control the direction of a situation in which they often feel like they’ve lost control.

What happens once an incident is reported?

Wake: When a student or someone else reports a potential violation of our policy, there are three phases that occur: the report phase, the investigation phase and the adjudication phase.

The report phase is when the Title IX coordinator receives information that there’s a possible incident of sexual misconduct. We immediately reach out to the student and offer information about medical resources, confidential support and counseling services, how to make a police report, resources in the community and accommodations. It’s really important for people to understand that, in almost all cases, meeting with the Title IX coordinator does not mandate participation in an investigation. Regardless of whether a student chooses to move forward with an investigation and the disciplinary process, they will still receive support and resources. As stated previously, if a student expresses that they do not want to participate in an investigation, we are obligated to honor that request unless, for example, we determine that the accused person poses a threat to campus safety. In making that assessment, we use specific criteria, including whether a weapon was involved or if the accused person is someone who has been previously found responsible for sexual misconduct.

What happens if a student requests an investigation?

Wake: There is a general confusion that the report phase is somehow the same as the investigation phase, and it is vital for people to understand the difference, especially when reading the statistics. After making the report and receiving the applicable resources and support, the student can then choose whether they want to continue with an investigation. If they do, I then put them in touch with Jeremy Inabinet, associate dean of students in the University for Disciplinary Affairs, who conducts a prompt and thorough investigation. During that investigation and disciplinary process, all of the parties involved, including the complaining party and the respondent, can meet with the Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Students, Shea Wolfe, to receive support services.

Can you explain what happens in the adjudication/hearing process once the investigation is complete?

Rasmussen: After the investigatory process is complete, the case moves to the hearing process overseen by the University-Wide Student Disciplinary Committee. Jeremy Inabinet meets with the faculty chair of the committee to share the details of the investigation. From there, they move forward with the hearing process. During this process, both parties have equal rights and have equal access to the information  used in the hearing process. They receive simultaneous notification of the outcomes, and they also have equal rights to request a review of the committee’s decision.

If an individual is found responsible for violating University policy, how does the committee determine what sanctions to impose?

Rasmussen: After finding a student responsible, the members spend a significant amount of time on the sanctioning process. They approach this task with seriousness and purpose, and they take into account the full spectrum of germane considerations, including what the respondent has been found responsible for, what part of our policies was violated, how severe that violation is, the impact it had on the victim and the degree to which it otherwise compromised the educational environment and the behavioral standards borne by every University student.

It’s also important to understand that a respondent can be responsible for violating our policy in a plethora of ways. Our hearings can address behavior not covered under the criminal definition of sexual assault—for example, an individual may have consented to one type of sexual activity but not another. People who look at the abstracts and statistics in the annual disciplinary report may assume that every case of misconduct involves penetrative sexual assault, so it’s not clear why the sanctions vary in severity. For this reason, we’re looking at whether to include a bit more explanation in future reports.