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Should We Invest in Trauma-Informed Practice?

Professionals working in student conduct have heard the term “trauma-informed” with increasing regularity over the last few years. There has been some debate whether trauma-informed is akin to a post-DCL buzz-word or an investigatory and adjudicatory technique that will have lasting influence on our practice. Throughout the course of the next nine months, the Community of Practice on Sexual Misconduct and Title IX (the COP) will be engaging in an ongoing conversation about the application of the trauma-informed practice to the work of student conduct professionals. We intend to share that conversation with the membership in a number of venues during that time. Our goal through this blog post is to provide an initial framework around the conversation, with the hope that you will return throughout the coming months to learn more. Let's start with some basic terminology.

To what do we refer when we say trauma?  For the purposes of this discussion, a traumatic event is an event in which an individual experiences acute awareness of a threat to their life and well-being that induces a psychobiological response (Lash, 2016). Additionally, trauma-informed practice has been defined as “understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma” (http://www.traumainformedcareproject.org, n.d.). In the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act, the Illinois Legislature recently defined trauma-informed as:

Understanding the complexities of sexual violence, domestic violence, dating violence or stalking through training centered on the neurobiological impact of trauma, the influence of societal myths and stereotypes…and understanding the behavior of perpetrators (Public Act 099-0426, 2015, p. 3).

However, some critics have equated trauma-informed practice to being survivor-centered, suggesting that the imbalance is discriminatory against student respondents. As student conduct professionals, we have a duty to ensure that our process is fair and equitable to both the complainant and respondent.

So, are trauma-informed practice and a fair and equitable process mutually exclusive? Our position: no, they are not - if applied properly. The trauma-informed technique is but one of a number of techniques available to student conduct professionals. Arguably, student conduct professionals are more inclined to provide a fair and equitable process for both the complainant and respondent if they are educated and skilled in investigatory and adjudicatory practices that seek to gather relevant facts and understand the impact that an event has on the well-being of a student. In the face of mounting criticism, for a perceived inability to fairly investigate and adjudicate matters of sexual misconduct within our institutions, student conduct professionals must continue to seek (and perhaps develop) leading practices and techniques that address the whole student in light of tragic experiences - for both the complainant and the respondent

While the focus of this COP is on sexual misconduct, these authors recognize that a trauma-informed practice has valuable application to circumstances unrelated to sexual misconduct as well. In addition to victims of sexual misconduct, we interact with students impacted by other forms of trauma frequently in our offices. These students are victims of severe physical violence, car accidents, and other tragedies. They are often veterans who have returned to our campus from a combat zone, still impacted by traumatic events they have experienced. Additionally, they may be faculty or staff who have been threatened in some way and are seeking our assistance. 
 
Student conduct professionals who are well-trained in a trauma-informed practice possess an essential skill set that has the ability to broadly serve the greater campus community in a positive way.  A trauma-informed professional is one who:

  • Has a firm understanding of the psychobiological processes and impact on an individual resulting from experiencing a traumatic event;

  • Can recognize the signs and characteristics that distinguish “trauma” from “severe stress;”

  • Can recognize and apply investigatory and adjudicatory techniques that will seek to gather relevant and factual information;

  • Can articulate the relevance of the facts gathered in their investigation while accounting for the psychobiological impact if a trauma has occurred; and

  • Can connect all students involved in the campus process to necessary resources primed to address their needs.


The student conduct profession is still evolving, and while there hasn't always been a formalized trauma-informed model, that is not to be confused with the assumption that student conduct professionals, until just recently, haven't been getting it right. What we as practitioners have come to understand as we have explored the trauma-informed practice is that we have indeed been doing this work well, but without the vernacular to describe what we are observing and doing in our interactions with students in the way that our colleagues in other areas of the university (i.e., student counseling and advocacy) have for years now. Training on the trauma-informed practice allows the student conduct professional to provide holistic service to our students and articulate more accurately our understanding of their experiences and the methodologies in place to assist them and make the campus a safer place.

At the same time, we must also be cautious of improper application of the trauma-informed practice. Having an awareness of the limits of the practice, knowing when to use it or not, allows us to maintain the fairness and equity expected of our processes. A trauma-informed student conduct professional is not an individual trained to seek a means to increase the credibility of a complainant or stack the deck against a respondent. A trauma-informed professional understands that the outcome of an investigation is not to diagnose an individual as having experienced trauma. Nor is it to ignore or reframe the facts of a case to fit a particular narrative. 

Rather, the responsibility of the professional is to evaluate the facts made available through an investigation. If a complainant has indeed experienced a traumatic event, which our experiences show is not every act of sexual misconduct we investigate, a trauma-informed technique may allow us to gather information that otherwise would be inaccessible with other interview techniques. If the trauma-informed technique is not applicable to a case, the professional ought to have a number of means to properly gather and analyze the facts of the matter. 

Additionally, let us acknowledge that over the past few years the narrative from respondents often comes down to this, “I too, am traumatized! Is there truth to this narrative? Are our campus processes designed in such away that responding to an accusation of misconduct is in and of itself a traumatic event for a respondent? We believe reasonable minds may come to differing conclusions, particularly if there is variance in which one might define traumatization.  What we do know from experience concerning the respondent is that we owe them just as much professionalism, fairness, and thoroughness as we provide the complainant. Responding to an accusation is indeed stressful, perhaps even at times at acute levels. The COP is going to be discussing the experience of the respondent in greater depth in coming months - keep an eye out for more on this topic.

Members of the COP encourage you to consider engaging with ASCA further on this topic. The association continues to be the premiere training provider for student conduct professionals in one of two ways. First, consider attending the “Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault and Adjudication Educational Program” track at the Gehring Academy in Berkeley, CA this June.  Second, consider investing in the Second Annual Sexual Misconduct Institute. Each program promises to deliver training on advanced skill development for student conduct professionals on the trauma-informed practice. Lastly, stay informed. Outside of ASCA, there is some excellent material already available to you through colleagues on your respective campuses that work with students who have experienced trauma and severe stress. They are likely a valuable resource to you. 

We also encourage you to consider joining this COP if the work interests you. The COP meets monthly via teleconference (every third Thursday of the month at 3pm EST). As mentioned earlier, we plan to continue to analyze and promote the leading practices to address matters of sexual misconduct at our institutions. Your voice in that discussion is most welcome. We also hope to see you engage with us in this conversation via social media with the hashtag #ascatixcop. Stay tuned for more blogs from the COPs over the coming months!


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominiciat FreeDigitalPhotos.net

REFERENCES

Lash, J. (2016). Sexual misconduct investigations: Using a trauma-informed approach. Speech presented at 2016 ASCA Annual Conference in St. Pete Beach, FL.

Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act. 110 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 155/1 – 99.

The Trauma Informed Care Project. (n.d.) Trauma informed care. Retrieved from http://www.traumainformedcareproject.org/

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