Sexual assault policies on campuses around the country are being scrutinized, and the Department of Justice has been looking at the University of New Mexico this year. Some UNM students say the university isn’t clear about when their sexual assault reports will remain confidential—and when they won’t.
Over the last few months, KUNM spoke with university students who say they’ve been assaulted about what it’s like in the aftermath to try to keep yourself safe, finish school, or speak out about what happened. All of the students called investigations at UNM confusing and said they take too long, dragging on for months. Chief among their concerns is privacy during that process.
But you won’t hear from those folks in this story, because privacy is such a big issue. KUNM guaranteed their anonymity, but they changed their minds about sharing their stories. They said they were worried about how doing so could damage them academically or socially, or even put them in danger.
Claire Harwell has helped many students through the process of reporting an assault as the legal director for the Community Justice Project. "The idea of being able to explore your options with some measure of confidentiality is a bedrock concern for many survivors, because sexual violence is the ultimate violation of your privacy and yourself—your physical self," she said. "After that, you want an opportunity to sort of cocoon. And it’s important to figure out who you can talk to without that being taken somewhere else."
And Harwell said it’s not easy for students to figure out what will be kept private and what won’t. "The problem is that UNM is not clear with students who they can go to for information confidentially and who they cannot."
Near the on-campus dorms at UNM, skateboarders and bicyclists wove through the pedestrians. The sidewalks were crowded, and people were everywhere. Privacy isn’t only an emotional concern; for survivors whose harassment continues as they try to attend classes, or who might be receiving threats, confidentiality about a sexual assault means safety.
Francie Cordova is the new director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, which investigates sexual assault claims and civil rights violations for UNM. "If a student comes to us, for example, the first thing we tell them is that we are not completely confidential," she said.
Cordova said students making a report with OEO will probably have their name revealed during the course of the investigation. "We can have anonymous reporting here, but even an anonymous report to us may hinder the investigation in terms of us trying to figure out what the facts are of the case."
So if you make an anonymous report to OEO, investigators might not be able to do much. That’s also true of UNM’s Police Department, which is where students go if they want their sexual assault investigated as a crime. Another question survivors face: Do they want their assailant to know who reported the attack so there can be consequences?
In the end, Cordova said, "if we investigate something, we find probable cause, we explain to a student that we have to forward that to somebody so that the person who is accused can be accountable. And the student may not want that."
Some university protections don’t allow for confidentiality, according to Heather Cowan, UNM’s Title IX compliance coordinator. "There are things like no-contact orders, which is one of the things that we do, where you would have to inform the other person, this person doesn’t want you to contact them anymore, you are not allowed to contact them anymore," she said.
But Cowan added there are other options that allow survivors’ identities to be protected, like moving someone to a new housing location or changing class schedules. There are escort services and also security services through the UNM Police Department. Students can review all of their choices—anonymously—at the Lobo Respect Advocacy Center. "So if somebody is wanting interim measures put in place," Cowan said, "and they don’t want the university to take action for them, then they should go to the advocacy center, and the advocacy center can do certain things."
It’s a lot to think about, and there are also completely confidential counseling options on campus to help students do just that.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico Project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.