University of York on how to handle anonymous reports

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The University of York has been a partner with Culture Shift using our anonymous reporting system since May 2020. We spoke to Nicola Campbell, Head of Conduct and Respect at the university, to ask how they have found using it so far.

Why did the University of York decide to adopt an anonymous reporting system?

Essentially, it was something that our students wanted. They petitioned the University back in 2018 but the reality was they were petitioning to an empty seat because there was nobody then in that type of role. I was introduced to the team to try and make it happen, and it began as a kind of a risk benefit conversation with senior management.

All of the typical concerns that you can imagine; vexatious reports, being overwhelmed with reports and so on, all of the fears were there, so we really had to work quite hard to point out that the benefit was much, much bigger than any of these risks.

We also really quickly identified the value and desire of just wanting to be transparent, and encourage people to talk to us, and knew we weren’t able to do that without anonymous reports. One of the concerns was that we wouldn’t be able to investigate these reports, but again very quickly we’ve been able to demonstrate that this isn’t necessarily true, and that it doesn’t mean action can’t be taken.

It’s been so useful in terms of being able to shape our campaigns, actually understanding what our students were worried about. We’ve been able to really shape our messages, determine what we spend money on in terms of posters around campus, deciding where security should be on a night, and so we’ve been able to do some really practical things in situations that we have no power to investigate.

The important thing is it has allowed us to be seen to do something where in the past, it would have been an investigation or nothing. I think the bottom line on the risks is that they’re real. The risks do exist, but we haven’t come across anything that wasn’t manageable, and that wasn’t worth it. And more than anything, I don’t think there was any risk greater than continuing to just do things the old way. Actually, the risk of not knowing what was going on was bigger than anything that we’ve actually come across.

What action have you been able to take using the data gleaned from anonymous reports?

The surprising thing for us was actually the amount of levels at which we’ve been able to take action. From a really strategic perspective, we’ve been able to use the insights to grow the team and make sure that the university is now appropriately resourced. We’ve gone from nobody managing this to a team of what will be eight people from SVLOs to full time investigators, so now we are actually very confident in our response. We’ve been able to build that by showing this data to senior management and saying, ‘look at the things that are happening on campus, look at the fears that our students do have’. Then we’ve been able to justify investment into things like rolling out student bystander intervention programmes, ‘consent matters’ programmes, the online consent module etc.

Another more day to day, less strategic example of action we’ve been able to take using anonymous reports is one where, again, we might not have been able to do a typical classic investigation into student misconduct. York is a very open campus, very picturesque, people come and walk their dogs here. We have any number of people just strolling through the campus day and night. We had a bout of anonymous reports from our international students saying that they were being racially abused on campus, but none of them wanted to come forward and tell us who they were. The great thing was that from every anonymous report that was made, it was like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and we started being able to piece together what was happening.

By the time we had some locations and some times and put security in certain places we really quickly identified that it wasn’t our students, it was a group of local youngsters. We got the police involved and ended up with an outcome that we could then share that said, because our students came and told us that this was happening and because we had the resource to do so we could look at the issue and make sure that the appropriate authority did respond. This action wasn’t anything like the typical investigations under our regulations, but we were able to resolve the problem because of the data that we were able to take anonymously.

How has having a provision for allowing anonymous reports impacted how students engage with your services over time?

In our first annual report we noticed that reporting levels were incredibly consistent from term to term. Anonymous reports dropped by more than 40%, but the overall level of reports stayed the same.

This happened at the same time that we’d introduced the question, ‘why are you reporting anonymously?’ It was a really vulnerable question to ask and I think it’s fair to say it’s incredibly difficult to be faced with people telling you things like, ‘I don’t trust you’, ‘I don’t think the university cares about me’, ‘I don’t think anyone’s gonna believe me, or anyone’s going to do anything’. They’re hard questions to get feedback from, but they have been some of the most important questions that we’ve asked students.

What we’ve been hugely encouraged by at York is the decrease in some of the more concerning responses. ‘I don’t think you’re going to do anything’ has been one of our most significant decreases time on time. So I think, again, we can look at that and reasonably conclude that people are starting to trust that we are going to do something. The ones that remain high are interesting like, ‘I think this is going to affect my future career’. Obviously it won’t, and we’re working on how we shape our messaging to reassure reporting parties that it’s not going to do that.

The other shift we’ve seen is a lot of people who are submitting what looks like a duplicate report, but they’re just putting in one report anonymously, and then within very short timeframes are coming back to us and saying, actually, I am ready to tell you who I am, which again, I think really speaks to the increasing confidence that there is. That can take a varying amount of time, and it’s a very personal thing. We had one case where the individual made an anonymous report at the beginning of their masters and then made a named report of the same incident at the end of their masters. Then another situation just in the last few weeks where somebody took seven minutes to change their mind and put it in with contact details. It wasn’t a mistake either, their narrative was very much, I’ve decided that I do want to share my details.

I think it’s very much about overcoming that huge obstacle of getting it out and writing it down for the first time. The anonymous reporting offers that space to just go, okay, I’ve done that bit. I’ve got it down. I’ve written it. Now, what do I want to happen? And I think it just offers that choice based model to say now that it’s written, do I want to come forward? Yes or No.

Is there any nervousness around the use of free text boxes at your University? If so, how do you manage that?

Yeah. So first, it’s fair to note that there was an incredible amount of anxiety about introducing free text boxes at this institution initially. We have managed to decrease some of that anxiety over time, and purely again, from reflecting on what the data actually looks like. So starting with the really obvious concern of vexatious reports, we just haven’t seen that. What we’ve seen is actually probably a very steady amount that previously would have landed in miscellaneous inboxes. It’s much better being able to say, isn’t it better now that these reports are all landing in a system, and actually, we’re not seeing an increase, but what we’re seeing is that they’re in the right place.

It also gives us a place to refer people to. Especially in this age of social media, where previously complaints, anonymous or vexatious, were made on Twitter, on our Facebook pages or submitted through our Instagram feed. Now we always refer people to Report and Support. It’s letting students know that they can just go there, and we’ll figure it out with them. It’s really important to say that we don’t ever label anything vexatious, we don’t refer to vexatious complaints in our disciplinary processes. We understand that things are often much more complicated. Often the things that seemed vexatious actually are problems in themselves that need support.

The other big anxiety is about natural justice, the right to respond, making sure that we are giving people a due process. We’ve been able to manage that by just explaining that there is still due process, and by being very clear about what we can and cannot do. We introduced duty of care guidance that’s available to view on our Report + Support site. This makes it clear that we probably won’t be able to carry out regulation and investigation on an anonymous report. However we also communicate that there is some action we may take, and we’re very clear to give ourselves enough wiggle room to act when we do need to act.

What other concerns are there within your institution regarding anonymous reporting?

There was an initial fear that we would ‘open the floodgates’, so to speak, and that we would just get overwhelmed by reports. The truth is that we did open the floodgates, and we did get a lot more reports. However, that’s a good thing. What I would say to any other institution that might experience that apprehension from their institution is that it’s one to be really honest about that it can happen. It doesn’t mean that it’s happening more, it just means that you’ve got your finger on the pulse.

The start of my time in higher education was when the Guardian was still printing pieces about how every university in the country was saying they’d had less than five incidents of anything go wrong, ever! I’m really pleased we’re not in that space anymore. I don’t think that any institution can say that it’s a bad thing to open the floodgates.

In terms of how we manage free text boxes, we’ve taken the decision to just be very open. Our intro text to the free text box just says, ‘Tell us what you want to tell us’. We don’t restrict responses in any way, by saying for example ‘don’t tell us anything, we might have to redact’ because, again, we want to say, you just do what you need to do. It’s on us to figure out the rest. It’s on us to figure out how we manage that data, to figure out what’s GDPR compliant. We don’t want our students to have to worry about what they’re meant to tell us and what they’re not meant to tell us. We just want them to come to us.

What do you do if a student names an alleged perpetrator in an anonymous report?

It’s very rare for somebody to be named in an anonymous report in our experience. When they are, typically, we know about the situation already. It tends to be that somebody is coming forward in support of a report that we’re already aware of. Often they’ll want to legitimise a complaint they know we’re looking into particularly, if say the accused had carried out similar behaviour toward them.

On the very rare occasion that we have had a named party within an anonymous report, we’ve treated it on a case by case basis. We would always start with a risk assessment and answer the question ‘what are we looking at and what could go wrong if we don’t do X, Y, or Z’. So again, at the University of York, we’re really lucky to have what we call Student Life and Wellbeing, which is a bringing together of security, colleges, mental health, conduct and respect. Key services, that get together twice a week to talk about our safeguarding concern cases. So if we were to have a student named in a risk heavy report, and we feel there’s a legitimate concern, we will take it to that group, talk about whether it is known to anybody and get a sense of the risk of the case.

We’ll look at whether the behaviour itself is enough for us to make contact. Do we have legitimate grounds to understand that this could be serious? Do we have legitimate grounds to say that it’s not? So we’re always assessing, we don’t have a written down black and white guide, because each case is different. As I say, we’ve got policies that are available on the system to students to access to see what that wiggle room looks like, where we will have to act, where we might act and where we won’t act. But what I will say is that we have had cases where we’ve been able to take full disciplinary action, because we’ve had evidence that stands on its own two feet, that somebody has been anonymously able to provide to us. And obviously, we have many, many more cases where we would have to just mark it down to something that we may have a need to act on in future.

What processes do you use to track and identify patterns, for instance, in location, or where a person may be named repeatedly?

At the moment a lot of it is done through our cross-functional group that meets twice a week. So that is a space where we have a very locked down system run by our mental health team. We have a completely confidential record of any student that we’ve identified as high risk. You can imagine a lot of those are those who are either reporting or reported parties in cases like this. So we run names through that group all the time.

In terms of similar sounding situations where we might not have named parties, we primarily do use that same group and just that anecdotal shared wisdom of somebody recognising a situation. I think to be honest, it’s one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing with remote working. There’s no longer the tap on the shoulder culture, the overheard phone call that a member of a team can go, ‘that sounds like a conversation I just had with this department’. But it is something that we’re looking at currently, how we make sure that things don’t slip through that human net.

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