Protecting Victims of Sexual Assault on Campus Through No Contact Orders
Reflections by Harlan I. Ettinger, Esq.
This month I participated in a webinar presented by the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC), based on the publication Drafting, Implementing, and Enforcing No Contact Orders for Sexual Violence Victims on College Campuses developed by VRLC in conjunction with the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MSCASA).
Even a bucolic ivy covered campus can become an intimidating and frightening place for a student who has been sexually assaulted. Feeling unsafe may make it impossible for the student to participate fully in academic, extracurricular or social life at school. This is especially so if the assailant remains on campus.
When the victim and the assailant(s) are students, or someone else who is on campus and subject to the school’s policies, No Contact Orders (NCOs) are among the tools schools can use to keep victims safe. The VRLC and MSCASA developed Drafting, Implementing, and Enforcing No Contact Orders for Sexual Violence Victims on College Campuses to help college administrators address sexual violence on their campuses, but it can also be a valuable resource for people who have been victims of sexual assault, and their loved ones. This guide describes how NCOs can help victims regain a sense of physical and emotional safety on campus.
For me, the key takeaways from the VRLC webinar are:
- NCOs must be based on written policies and procedures that make clear who has the authority to issue and enforce the orders and what the sanctions will be for violating an order. Violations of NCO restrictions must be punished – warnings are not enough.
- The NCO must prohibit “Intentional Contact” and clearly describe in writing the behaviors that are prohibited.
- The NCO must define “Incidental Contact” and clearly distinguish Incidental Contact from Intentional Contact so that all the individuals made subject to the NCO’s restrictions understand the distinction.
- To be effective each NCO must be tailored to the specific needs of the individuals involved. One size does NOT fit all! Victims know what they need to feel safe again.
- How well an NCO is tailored to the needs of the individuals involved depends in large part upon how carefully school administrators map each party’s daily activities before prescribing restrictions that minimize “incidental” contact. The students involved, both the victim of sexual assault and those accused of perpetrating the assault, must be consulted SEPARATELY.
- NCOs serve the needs of victims only if they are part of a larger safety plan.
As described by the VRLC “A safety plan consists of practical strategies that help a victim assess situations that may be physically or emotionally dangerous and assists victims in developing strategies to respond when they feel unsafe.” A Guide to Safety Planning with Victims of Campus Sexual Violence, also developed by VRLC and MSCASA, points out there are important privacy/confidentiality concerns to sort out, and a wide array of things to be accounted for in making individual safety assessments before crafting plans that address each individual victim’s immediate physical safety, safety from tech based harassment and stalking, safety where they live and work, safety where they participate in extracurricular activities, and of course safety where they go to classes.
As I have written before, all schools, elementary, secondary and post-secondary, have a legal obligation under Title IX (20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq.), a federal civil rights law, to prevent and effectively respond to incidents of sexual violence committed by or against their students.
An NCO is a tool. As with any tool, the effectiveness of an NCO depends on how well it is crafted and how well it is enforced. Students, and parents of both victims of sexual assault and of those accused of perpetrating these assaults, may need the help of advocates who can guide them as they navigate and negotiate the NCO process.
You may wish to seek this help from an attorney knowledgeable about the legal obligations of schools regarding discipline, accountability, NCOs and other accommodations, as well as about the options for obtaining redress and justice through the courts. You can consult an attorney with full confidence that you control to whom and when the attorney can disclose what you reveal. Attorneys are required by the Rules of Professional Conduct to maintain their clients’ confidences.
The journey from “victim” to “survivor” begins with the first step.