Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 3: Why do PSIs Say They Can’t Proceed With an Anonymous or Third Party Report?

Written by: Deborah Eerkes with Lara Hof


Q: Why do post-secondary institutions (PSIs) say they can’t proceed with an anonymous report or third party report?

A:  There’s a lot to unpack in this question!  I turned to Lara Hof from Hof & Associates to talk it through, starting with the anonymous report – that is, when an individual submits a report without their name attached to it. Lara pointed out that there are likely a variety of expectations about what a PSI can do with an anonymous report. For example, it is unlikely that any PSI will be able to conduct an investigation and impose sanctions (essentially, a complaints process) based solely on an anonymous report.

But, as Lara pointed out, a survivor might believe a complaint is required in order to access support; like modifications or accommodations, a personal safety plan, mental health support, or even possible voluntary or non-disciplinary safety measures applied to the person who caused harm, or other remedies. It’s not uncommon for staff to believe that as well, whether or not their policies and procedures actually require it. When a survivor doesn’t want to make a complaint but does want help, they may choose to report anonymously in order to protect themselves from being subjected to a difficult process.

The reality is, these options are usually all available without a complaint. Lara’s advice to PSIs is this: “With anonymous complaints, we need to pause for a hot minute and make sure we don’t immediately dismiss them” before asking some key questions about what the reporter expects or needs. Often, they themselves don’t really know, but guiding them through various options can help significantly. Of course, in order to provide support, the PSI would need to know the identity of the person seeking it. In other words, an anonymous report in this case could actually be a barrier to getting help.

For survivors, Lara advises: your PSI may very well be able to provide the support you need without a formal report. Only those with a legitimate need to know will have any information about what happened to you, and even most of them don’t need details. Consider asking for help!

Turning to the issue of third party reports, where a person is reporting on behalf of someone else, Lara’s immediate concerns were 1) whether the survivor knew the report was being made, 2) whether they consented to the report being made, and 3) whether intervention from the PSI would help or cause more harm. Third party reports can arise especially in relation to intimate partner or dating violence (IPV) where the reporter is worried about a friend’s safety or wellbeing. In these cases, providing the reporter with the available options for the survivor may go a long way toward that person getting the help they need without the PSI swooping in and adding harm to an already harmful situation.

In all cases, Lara says, it’s crucial that the PSI manages expectations, including exploring what the reporter expects or needs, and then providing totally transparent information about what the institution can and can’t do. If the reporter is looking for an investigation leading to expulsion, the PSI will explain that this isn’t possible with just an anonymous report. Procedural fairness requires reasonable disclosure of information to the person under allegation, including the name of the person harmed and their detailed account of what happened.

But if a survivor (or a friend on their behalf) is seeking personal support, accommodations, or a safety plan, there is no need to give any information to the person under allegation at all. Some PSIs even offer non-disciplinary measures applied to the person who caused harm, such as a non-contact order or other minimal restrictions or conditions. A certain amount of disclosure to the person under allegation is required in these cases, but not as much as a formal complaint because non-disciplinary measures should be as minimally restrictive as possible under the circumstances. (You can read all about the fairness requirements for the various options in Section 3 of the Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints).

One last sticky issue: at times the reporter just wants to get the name of the person who caused harm on the record. While the PSI can’t create a disciplinary record without that full investigation and finding of a policy violation, having a record of the disclosure may be important. If more disclosures come to light about the same individual, even where none of the reporters are willing to make a complaint, the institution can potentially rely on information about the pattern of behaviour to apply non-disciplinary measures, for example.

It comes down to this: survivors should look for the spaces on their campus where staff can guide them through their options; they should not assume they have to make a formal complaint to get help. For their part, PSIs need to ask questions before saying “there’s nothing we can do” and recognize that there is plenty they probably can. “Proceed” or “act” doesn’t always mean investigate, and PSIs have an obligation to explore supports and remedies of various kinds when a student or employee discloses having been subjected to sexual violence.

And finally, Lara reminds us, “remember you can actually just talk to people and tell them to stop it’!” She and I agree that a singular reliance on formal processes is counterproductive when most survivors just want the behaviour to stop. I want to remind readers that gender-based violence includes a wide range of behaviours, some of which can be addressed at a very low level. For example, looking at a person is not a policy violation, but leering most certainly deserves some form of corrective action, even if it is just to say, “that behaviour is making people uncomfortable and creating a hostile environment.” We should never underestimate the power of a conversation with a person who has caused or is causing harm about the impact of those low- to medium-spectrum behaviours.

The Reporting, Investigation and Adjudication (RIA) Working Group focuses on formal campus gender-based violence complaints processes, with an aim to infuse trauma-informed practice into procedurally fair processes and reduce the harm to complainants, respondents, witnesses, and all staff and faculty involved in the process, from disclosure through to appeal. The RIA Working Group is one of three Working Groups with the Courage to Act project. Each Working Group is composed of experts in their respective fields from across Canada. The RIA Working Group’s membership includes Deborah Eerkes and Britney De Costa, with contributions from Zanab Jafry.


Suggested Citation: Eerkes, D. & Hof, L. (2022, April). Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 3: Why do PSIs Say They Can’t Proceed With an Anonymous or Third Party Report? Courage to Act.

Deborah Eerkes

Deb Eerkes is the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator at the University of Alberta. Her role includes reviewing  and strengthening institutional policy and procedures, ensuring training programs are accessible and reflect best practices, and building a network of expertise and resources across the institution. Deb has formerly held a number of positions and responsibilities at the University of Alberta, including Student Ombudsperson, University Discipline Officer, Human Rights Officer and Director of Student Conduct & Accountability. She has been a key participant and leader of many institutional initiatives, including development of the Sexual Violence Policy suite, the restorative justice program in University residences, the Helping Individual at Risk policy suite, and the academic integrity program.

Lara Hof

With experience in both the university and college post-secondary sector, Lara Hof has become a recognized professional working in student conduct administration. She is regarded among her peers for her understanding of the practice and procedural fairness. She has served as the primary investigator for incidences of sexual violence and has had oversight for sexual violence taskforces, and prevention initiatives. Her latest endeavor includes committing full-time to her consulting business where she conducts program and policy reviews, hosts trainings, and builds out resources to support the work and related processes.

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