A new law in Minnesota will require all colleges in the state to provide an online platform where students can report sexual harassment and assault complaints. In most cases, these systems must allow for anonymity, and colleges will also be obligated to clearly explain how the reports will be handled to the students filing them: who will be able to access their reports and how any information they provide may be used by the school.
The law goes into effect this week, as more than 100 universities across the country are currently facing lawsuits alleging Title IX violations.
The law also mandates that all students will be required to complete on-campus sexual assault training, provided by the school, within the first ten days of their first semester. This training will include lessons on consent, preventing sexual assault, procedures for reporting sexual assault, and campus resources for victims as well. Campus security will also be legally obligated to receive sexual assault–specific training that lays out policies for how to conduct investigations and work with local authorities in pursuit of justice.
While Title IX requires federally funded schools to file annual sexual assault reports, all of Minnesota's colleges will now be required to provide detailed reports that include the number of cases that were investigated, the number that led to disciplinary action, and the number of non-anonymous complaints submitted online.
Rebecca O'Connor, the vice president of public policy at RAINN, tells Broadly that these kinds of procedures, if implemented correctly, have the potential to help survivors and prevent future assaults. While anonymous reporting may not lead to formal investigations, "it can give survivors an outlet to start to seek help and figure out if it's something they want to pursue in formal way," says O'Connor. "For survivors who may not have fully processed an attack, [anonymous reporting] opens door to exploring what happened, to figure out if it was it a crime," she says. "Putting it on someone's radar can help make it real."
It sends a message to a survivor that the system is working to address their needs.
With Minnesota's law, O'Connor says there are still some logistical uncertainties about who will be responsible for monitoring these online reports and making decisions on how to proceed.
"It's necessary to make sure all stakeholders, from administrators to students, have a clear understanding of what systems like this can do, what they're meant to do, and what they're not meant to do," she says.
"You have to make sure the interface you create has information upfront to make sure someone knows what happens when they hit send," O'Connor continues. "On the one hand, people might be reticent to send reports if they think it means an investigator will show up at their door. On the other hand, some might have a false expectation. Do they know this won't trigger investigation?"
There's also an important safety aspect to consider. In 2013, men's rights activists spammed an online sexual assault reporting platform at Occidental College, writing hundreds of false rape reports attributed to names like "feminists" and "Fatty McFatFat." "When it comes to actual sexual assault reporting, people very rarely lie about rape," O'Connor says, "but schools need to figure out what kinds of checks and balances will be put in place to assess what is a true report, and to make sure they are handled responsibly."
Despite the details, though, O'Connor says, "Harnessing tech in a responsible way is right in track with trend of best practices" for dealing with campus sexual violence. Training students and campus security on how to deal with it is a "win-win" for everyone involved, too, she says. "There are boundaries between students, campus police, and local law enforcement. If it's confusing for survivors, it's also confusing for people entrusted with making sure survivors get the resources they need," says O'Connor. "A law like this, that pools these groups together, can help everyone have a difficult conversation about what it means logistically—a conversation that needs to happen before an incident occurs."
Ultimately, these kinds of policies, as well as the data reports required by Minnesota's new law, are a step in the right direction in addressing campus sexual assault, O'Connor says, and can help empower more victims to come forward. A similar provision for online anonymous assault reporting passed in Connecticut in 2014.
"It sends a message to a survivor that the system is working to address their needs. It tells them, 'We prioritize your safety. We believe you.'"