Faculty and staff at UW–Madison play an important role in preventing and responding to sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking on campus. Through instruction, research, and student support, you have opportunities to foster a safe and supportive community.
Best Practices for Responding to Disclosures
Student survivors are most likely to confide in friends and trusted adults. Your response can be an important part of their path to healing and critical their continued access and pursuit of educational opportunities.
If a student discloses to you, it is generally a sign that they trust you and feel you are caring person. Some reasons they may be coming to you:
- You have conveyed that you promote respect and safety.
- They perceive that you are in a position to offer assistance, like adjusting their work schedule or helping them with academic adjustments.
- They don’t know where else to go.
By educating yourself and following some simple guidelines, you can confidently and effectively respond to students who have experienced sexual and relationship violence.
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Know your reporting obligations
There are a variety of different reporting obligations related to sexual violence that are required of UW-Madison employees. Some obligations apply to all employees and others depend on your position within the university. Learn more by visiting this page on the Sexual Misconduct Resource and Response Program web site or by contacting the Title IX Coordinator.
Be clear about your role
It’s important to be honest and clear about the limits of your confidentiality before the student shares their experience. Something you could say:
Before we continue, I want to let you know that I may be required to report information that is shared with me about incidents of sexual violence and harassment to campus officials. This could prompt outreach from the university’s Title IX Coordinator and a campus crime warning. If you would like to first speak with someone who is confidential, I can help you to get connected with one of those resources.
Providing students with this information allows them to make informed decisions about how they feel is best to proceed. Some students may choose not to share information about their experience but may still need your help to arrange supportive adjustments in class or at work.
Above all, your role is to provide a compassionate and appropriate response to the student.
Listen, support, refer
Listening is the single most important thing that you can do. No one deserves to be the victim of violence, regardless of the circumstances. Let the student know they are not to blame.
Try: I’m sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me.
Instead of: How much were you drinking? Why didn’t you call the police?
Allowing the student to make choices about how to proceed after an assault or an abusive relationship is a way for them to regain control that was taken away. Work with them to consider what options are available and how you may be in a position to provide help, for example, by granting changes to assignments, providing extensions, providing flexibility with attendance, etc.
Try: What do you think would be helpful for you today?
Instead of: I think you need to report this right now.
You are not expected to be an expert; however, you can direct the student to offices and agencies who have well-trained staff to provide victim support.
Try: Would it be helpful to talk to someone further about this?
Instead of: You need to talk to the Dean of Students Office about this immediately.
Tools for Survivor-Supportive Classrooms
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Share support resources
As an instructor, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with campus and community resources available for students who have experienced sexual and relationship violence, so that you can refer students as needed. In addition, consider sharing information about resources in your syllabus or integrating them into your introduction to the course. Sharing resources proactively and universally can be a helpful way to set the tone for a classroom environment that is survivor-supportive and allows students to access information about support options without having to reach out directly to you in a way that might feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. You can let students know that resources are free, confidential, available to friends/family of survivors, and available regardless of the nature of the sexual/relationship harm or when/where it happened. A list of resources can be found at https://www.uhs.wisc.edu/survivor-resources/. You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about these resources.
If you would like to include information about resources on your syllabus, consider the following statement:
All students deserve to be safe and respected at UW-Madison. Unfortunately, we know that sexual and relationship violence do happen here. Free, confidential resources are available on and off campus for students impacted by sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking (regardless of when the violence occurred). You don’t have to label your experience to seek help. Friends of survivors can reach out for support too. A list of resources can be found at uhs.wisc.edu/survivor-resources/.
Provide content warnings
Instructors who include readings, films or discussions that contain content related to sexual violence, intimate partner violence or other traumatic experiences may want to consider incorporating information that alerts students that the course includes such material. These alerts can help students prepare for the content and how to best take care of themselves. Here is an example:
This course may include readings, media, and discussion around topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, physical violence, and identity-based discrimination and harassment. I acknowledge that this content may be difficult. I also encourage you to care for your safety and well-being.
You may also want to consider whether you will offer alternative options for emotionally triggering materials. If so, it’s important to consider how you will let students know about this option and what students will be expected to share with you to access it.
Many student survivors express that it can be extremely challenging to navigate their studies and their trauma symptoms simultaneously. All students who have been impacted by sexual or relationship violence (regardless of when or where it occurred or type of violence) are legally entitled to academic accommodations when reasonably available under Title IX policy. Accommodations can take a number of forms, such as flexibility in deadlines, group project expectations, attendance policies, or test-taking formats. If a student approaches you with a request for accommodations, please note the following:
- The student does not need to disclose details of their experience in order to access accommodations.
- If you have reporting responsibilities, a student’s request for Title IX accommodations does not require you to report to Title IX or the Dean of Students office. If you are concerned about your ability to keep student information confidential, interrupt the student and clarify what you are and are not required to report and how that you can discuss accommodations without any details about the harm they’ve experienced.
- Know that many student survivors feel guilty or self-conscious for requesting accommodations. Validating their need for support and flexibility in this vulnerable moment can be very helpful. You can name that it is extremely common for student survivors to struggle with academics and that accommodations are a way to adjust the playing field to be more manageable, and that this is not taking advantage of or gaming the system.
- You can work with the student to identify potential accommodations that would meet their needs. As you do so, please keep in mind that trauma can interfere with cognitive processing and executive functioning in a number of ways that can substantially impact academic performance. Of course, students can not utilize an accommodation to automatically change their grade or excuse them completely from class obligations. However, instructor flexibility and compassion can make a big difference in student survivors’ process to heal and continue in their education.
- You might also receive outreach from a campus staff member acting as an advocate or from Title IX staff regarding a student’s need for accommodations. While not required, this initial communication can make it easier for students to feel comfortable reaching out to you.
- If you have questions about granting reasonable accommodations contact the Sexual Misconduct Resource and Response Program. If you would like to consult about how to navigate these conversations with students, contact UHS Survivor Services.
Consider your role
As an instructor, you are likely invested in your students’ emotional wellbeing as well as their academic success. Consider the extent to which you are available and prepared to provide emotional support to your students around issues of sexual and relationship violence, and communicate this clearly to students. For example, if you have reporting responsibilities in this area, notify students of this early on in the course and specify what information would trigger a need to report. If you have personal experience with sexual/relationship violence such that these conversations might be activating for you, or if you have very little experience providing emotional support in a context of trauma, you may decide that you are not the best resource for students around these topics and focus on making sure they are aware of other supports.
If you do feel comfortable acting as a resource for students in this area, you can let them know that this is a topic you are comfortable talking about – and if you reach a point where you have limited capacity or you feel that the disclosure/support-seeking is not respectful of professional boundaries, you can name this and refer a student elsewhere. Supportive instructors can play a key role in student survivors’ healing processes. If you have questions about providing trauma-informed support to student survivors in an academic context, need to debrief a hypothetical student scenario, or are interested in further training in this area for your department contact UHS Violence Prevention.