Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State's manual for receiving reports of harassment (more notes on a scandal)

College campuses are obliged to have policies regarding sexual harassment/sex discrimination. These very broad overlapping categories include sexual assault and the systemic cover-up of abusive behavior within a department. These kinds of a matters are handled by Penn State's Affirmative Action Office. Each area of the university is also expected to have staff members trained in handling harassment complaints - including the Athletic Department. They are the college's front line - the people to whom staff and students are directed when they need help. The people who are supposed to tell you what to do, for example, if you see a guy raping someone in the showers.

As far as I can tell, Penn State's athletic department has two such staff members - a man and a woman whose names have not come up in reporting on the scandal (neither are part of the football program).  [That said, it's possible this particular system wasn't in place in 2002, when witnesses at Penn State reported Sandusky's behavior to their superiors - the Affirmative Action office was certainly in place, however, and identified as the office to which one reports such things.] No one in the football program followed the rule book on this one.

There is a reason institutions have offices for handling allegations of sex/gender harassment. Prejudice, shame and fear can be overwhelming in these cases. Victims find their experiences minimized, people who come forward expect retaliation. Charging a senior staff member with something like this is frightening. For many, coming forward feels like you are putting your personal and professional lives on the line. So - to acknowledge the specific difficulty of this whole category of experience, campuses have offices which specifically handle sex/gender harassment in all its forms.

Unfortunately, lots of university employees sneer at that office - at my own campus, I've heard it described as "a joke" and worse by a senior male colleague, in a university meeting (not in my department). Such attitudes abound - and the more masculnist and patriarchal the organization, the worse these attitudes will be.

People working in such spaces - sexist, homophobic and more - are ill equipped to handle their own feelings about child abuse - never mind child abuse enacted by a straight man (with whom they've worked closely) on young boys.

Penn State's football program has cult-like status - clearly no one wanted to acknowledge to themselves that such a man might actually fit right into the fold. What does that mean? What does that say? I can imagine everyone in that community feels shamed by this.

There is a community of people at Penn State to whom they might turn: feminist and LGBIT scholars and staff members who work regularly with subjects like sexual abuse - with the architectures of shame that make coming forward as a victim feel, for many, life-threatening. But it's naive to think the Penn State football program would be interested in turning to its feminist colleagues for help.

I'm really interested in knowing why the Penn State staff trained in handling these matters were kept so far from it all. (Am I right on this?) The only reason I can imagine for not going to the affirmative action office is that even those reporting what they saw and heard didn't want it to get out - they wanted to "keep it in the family." As is the case with many abusive scenarios.

It's probable that the university administration tried to use the non-student status of the victims to rationalize its decisions. Though all administrators have the training (and common sense) to know better, in this case, they may have wanted to believe it wasn't their responsibility - their sole responsibility in their minds may have been to students and staff - or, more nearly, to the institution itself (by which I mean Penn State football). Again, this is conjecture.

SO, here it is - an excerpt from Penn State's manual for "Recognizing and Responding to Sexual Harassment" - an overview of the things that didn't happen.

A. Concerns of Complainants
• Many complainants may show hesitation or even fear about coming forward with concerns or complaints of sexual harassment.
• A complainant may need to be assured that she/he will be treated fairly and protected from retaliation.
• Complainants are often concerned about who will learn about the details of their experience.
• Assure the person that only those people that “need to know” to resolve the issues will be informed.
• In cases of sexual assault, stalking or other forms of criminal sexual conduct, inform the
person of their option to file a report with the police, then contact AAO (the Affirmative Action Office).

B. The Initial Interview
• Have a copy of the policy, brochure, and other appropriate information available. Provide copies to the complainant.
• Listen and take the complaint seriously.
• Avoid making judgment and remain neutral and supportive.
• Determine if the harassment has stopped.
• Help the person regain a sense of control by explaining the process and what happens next.
• Determine if the complainant and others are at immediate risk.
• Take factual notes during the conversation for accuracy of recall.

C. What to Say When Receiving a Complaint
• Explain briefly the University’s Policy AD41.
• Indicate that the University takes complaints of sexual harassment very seriously.
• Advise that the University will take prompt action.
• Communicate that although complete confidentiality cannot be guaranteed, the facts will be protected as much as possible including, when possible, the identity of the complainant.
• Explain that the University will protect a complainant in every possible way, including protection against retaliation for filing a complaint or participating in a complaint.
• Explain that your role is to make sure the complainant knows and understands all available options and to help explore these options.
• Stress that the complainant may also go directly to the Affirmative Action Office for consultation and advice.
• Ask what happened.

D. Information to Secure from Complainant
Ask the person reporting the behavior or making a complaint the following:
• What was (or is) the offensive behavior?
• Where did the behavior occur?
• Who is the person doing the offensive behavior? Obtain name, employment status, phone number and description of the person complained about.
• When and where did the behavior occur? Obtain this information for each instance of offensive behavior.
• Who else was present that witnessed the behavior? Obtain name and phone numbers.
• Were there any others who have had the same or similar offensive behavior directed at them?
• Did the complainant tell anyone else about what happened?
• How long has this been going on? Did the complainant keep a journal or notes about what happened?
• Did the complainant indicate that the behavior was unwelcome? If yes, what was that person’s reaction to what the complainant said or did?
• What was the effect of the behavior on the complainant?
• What does the complainant want as the outcome?

E. During the Initial Interview
• Ask only open ended questions - “why” questions put people on the defensive.
• Remain neutral - voicing opinions or reaching conclusions prematurely is inappropriate.
• Don’t make promises or guarantee any particular results.
• Don’t ask leading questions or multiple-choice questions.
• Avoid making assumptions.
• Complete confidentiality can not be promised (you can not resolve the complaint if you can not talk to anyone about it); indicate that only people with a “need to know” will be consulted.
• Don’t reveal information which would violate the privacy of the person accused (i.e. “this is not the first time I’ve heard a complaint about this person.”)
• Summarize what the person has told you.
• Make sure that the person knows she or he will be kept informed.
• Explain the next step. Ask for complainant’s contact information.
• Indicate that she/he can call you to provide additional information or for an update.
• If the issue does not appear to be sexual harassment, refer the person to the appropriate resources.
• Complete your notes, keeping them factual.


A. Review the Information Received

Call the Affirmative Action Office for advice and assistance after gathering the preliminary information and before conducting further interviews, if possible. Consider the following:

• Do you need to take immediate action?
• Is the person potentially in physical danger?
- Has the complainant expressed fear or concern about ongoing behavior?
- Do the parties need to be separated while an investigation is conducted?
• Is the person’s employment or education status in jeopardy due to the situation?
• Who needs to be involved to resolve the situation?

B. Follow-up with Complainant - Explain/Discuss Appropriate Options

Discuss strategies the complainant might want to use in responding to a sexual harassment situation.
It may be helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. However, this is not required and in some circumstances it is not the appropriate approach.

• Describe direct action the person can take:
- Let the offender know that their behavior is unwelcome and it must stop
- Verbally
- In writing - by sending an email or a letter by certified mail to the harasser.
(See more information and sample letters at the end of this booklet)

• Describe informal actions the institution can take:
- Have conversation with the alleged harasser to discuss the behavior and review the Policy.
- Send administrative letter addressing adherence to the Policy to unit/office.
- Provide an educational program on sexual harassment prevention to the unit.
- Place a copy of the University policy in offender’s mailbox.
- Suggest other types of assistance.

• Describe formal actions the institution can take:
- Administrator or supervisor speak with alleged harasser about the behavior and
require that behavior stop.
- Refer to the Affirmative Action Office.
- Conduct a formal investigation that could possibly result in appropriate disciplinary action.

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