By Sophia Goodwin-Rice
It’s a pretty typical scenario.
“I want to be a person you guys feel comfortable with,” says the teacher/camp counselor/resident advisor/whoever. “Feel free to come to me to talk about the things going on in your life, any concerns you might have, or things that are bothering you.”
Heads begin to perk up. It depends on the circumstances, but for many kids, having a person come right out and say that they will care about you and be there as a friend and mentor is incredibly comforting and reassuring.
“But there’s another thing,” the leader-type person continues. “I’m also a mandatory reporter, so if you tell me something that sounds like it’s a danger to yourself or somebody else, I’m legally obligated to report it.”
For some students, this might not be much an issue. For others, however, it’s cause for a heavy heart. Heads drop down again, kids avoid eye contact and serious issues go undiscussed.
The concept of mandatory reporting generally applies to the neglect and mistreatment of vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly or the disabled. Many employees who work with these groups are required by law as well as the terms of their employment to report any signs of abuse that they come across, by submitting a report.
If it’s a child being mistreated, for instance, Child Protective Services could be called in and the child could potentially be removed from the home and placed into foster care, ultimately giving the child a much healthier and optimistic future. Those who hold jobs such as teachers, health care providers and childcare workers are responsible for assuring the safety of their charges, and by making reporting a mandatory obligation, that safety extends to when the charges aren’t in the workplace. In many cases, this mandatory reporting can save lives.
On college campuses, however, the concept gets more tricky. At Willamette, for instance, mandatory reporting isn’t just limited to abuse and neglect; red flags such as substance abuse, self-harm and thoughts of suicide are included. It makes sense that, on a college campus, employees would want to make sure that students are as safe as possible. It makes sense that they would want to take the steps towards getting students the help that they need, and helping them to cut toxic things out of their life. At the same time, though, this can be a curse more than an asset.
Perhaps there’s a student —we’ll say a freshman girl —who has had thoughts of self- harm and suicide and goes to her RA to talk things over and ask for help. If the RA doesn’t remind the girl that he or she is a mandatory reporter, anything the resident says could potentially be reported to higher authorities. If the RA does remind the resident, then maybe she won’t say anything at all and won’t have anyone to turn to. This girl potentially has her own reasons for not wanting her parents to know what’s going on in her life, and doesn’t feel comfortable enough confiding in her friends. It’s true that mandatory reporting can help students who are in dangerous places, either mentally or physically, but it can also prevent them from coming forward at all and getting any sort of help.
Fortunately, Willamette has taken some steps towards ensuring student safety without repercussions. While those who are employed by the university are obligated to report serious issues, other organizations exist for students who need a resource but wish to remain confidential. Students can call WEMS to help deal with alcohol poisoning or other life-threatening situations, assuring immunity from Campus Safety. Those who set up appointments with counselors at Bishop can remain in confidentiality — to an extent —and those who call SARA (Sexual Assault Response Allies) can keep their identity undisclosed and are not required to report their assaults. While mandatory reporting itself may end up silencing some students, if we as a community stick together and provide safe, non-threatening environments where voices can go anonymous, we might be able to help those students after all.