Anonymous data is crucial to tackling gender-based violence in higher education, even if it rarely leads to disciplinary outcomes.
However, a false assertion persists that an institution can not act on anonymous reports of harassment and sexual misconduct. This simply isn’t true. Within the 2016 Changing the Culture report, there is no mention of “can’t” when it comes to anonymous reports. The report acknowledges that it may be difficult and challenging to investigate, and there “is likely to be insufficient evidence to proceed”, but when it comes to taking some sort of action, it was never a “no”.
There is actually so much that we can do.
At the University of York, we’ve developed an Anonymous Report Assessment, a form we complete for every anonymous report received. We ask ourselves key questions to ascertain what we could or should be doing in response to the information received. This assessment covers basic questions such as “Is anybody identified who is under the age of 18?”, practical elements such as “Are any locations and times given which may enable us to check CCTV?” and risk-related questions, such as “What risk might we be introducing by taking action?” and “What risk might remain if we do not take action?” We’ve learned that a good deal of action can be taken when you don’t start from a “no”.
Anonymous reports can contain information that is not only best practice but utterly essential to act on, whether under the Prevent Duty (under which misogyny explicitly falls) or our broader safeguarding duties. Anonymous submissions pertaining to those under 18, an adult at risk, or someone at risk of radicalisation should be actively assessed to ensure we are – at the very least – doing what is required of us.
The growth of our investigation staffing and Sexual Violence support provision at the University of York has been made possible primarily through the insights we gained from launching Report+Support, our online reporting platform. We closely monitor what types of incidents are being reported in what quantities and commit to sharing this data regularly with committees and senior leadership. This has allowed for evidence-based staffing decisions which have meaningfully improved the experience of some of our most vulnerable students. In real terms, this means growing from a single role in 2018 to a team of dedicated specialist response staff.
Intercept and disrupt Behaviour
If reports show a pattern of public sexual harassment in a particular location or time, we can work with relevant colleagues to proactively break this pattern. Our Campus Safety teams are equipped with body-worn cameras to capture evidence if they know where there are repeat problems. Relevant staff may be able to intervene in a situation before it escalates further or casually pop into shared residential spaces where students are reporting repeat behaviour that leaves them feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes, students benefit simply from seeing a staff presence as a deterrent and showing that we are doing something rather than nothing.
There is little point in running a campaign for your students on something they are not impacted by or even interested in. One of the key outputs of assessing our anonymous data over the last five years has been a commitment to keep sexual violence a live conversation. This has been in response to not just individual reports received but also noting why students chose to report anonymously. We decided to frame Sexual Violence Awareness Week as a conversation, as much an opportunity for us as an institution to listen and learn as to educate and share, recognising that our data showed us that some students feared not being taken seriously. Since Sexual Violence Awareness Week has become an annual campaign that we mark, we have seen a notable decrease in students expressing fear that they won’t be believed if they come forward with a named report or thinking that they won’t be taken seriously.
If it becomes apparent that anonymous reports are being submitted primarily by those belonging to minoritised groups, we must consider how we can engage representatives of these communities to build trust to come forward with named reports. Noticing who’s absent from our data altogether and who is reporting anonymously is crucial. If our so-called harder-to-reach communities are not reporting, we must reconsider how hard we’ve actually tried to reach them.
And it is crucial to be transparent with students about what action can be taken on an anonymous report and named reports. We run online and in-person “Demystifying Report+Support” sessions to help staff and students understand the value of reporting. These sessions cover how anonymous and named reports are handled and by whom, what sort of response someone can expect, and what sort of action we have taken as a result of reports.
Anonymous reports can be used to procure appropriate training on emerging issues. At York, we ensured that key frontline staff had input from a specialist agency on responding to disclosures of spiking and drug-assisted sexual assault when we saw an influx of these reports and responded to data about the sexuality of those making reports of gender-based violence by arranging training on consent in queer relationships offered by a specialist LGBTQ+ organisation. When there is no other action possible from an anonymous report, the bare minimum we can do is learn.
And sometimes, you can take disciplinary action.
There may be circumstances where you can take action under a disciplinary procedure based on an anonymous report. Allowing students to submit supporting files such as photos may mean you receive evidence that stands, regardless of who has submitted it. Similarly, a report may contain sufficient information to independently verify an incident, for instance, by checking CCTV footage.
While you should always work within your institution’s framework and take legal advice where necessary, reaching a disciplinary outcome without needing a named reporting person is possible.
Over the past five years, we have come a long way in using data from anonymous reports. Our principle of not starting with a ‘no’ has allowed us to bring about positive outcomes through creative approaches. We know there will be much more to learn in the coming years, both as a University and as a sector. By being active in our approach to anonymous reporting data, we’ll have an insight into what’s changing for our students and how we can adapt to address new challenges.