The University of Wisconsin did not release reports for a recent sexual harassment investigation that would detail what actions occurred or how the investigation was carried out.
One recent case UW has not released investigative reports for involves retired botany professor Don Waller. The Wisconsin State Journal reported the investigation closed in March of last year after finding Waller had engaged in sexual harassment. Waller retired in June.
UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone said in an email to the Badger Herald that the university was unable to release investigative reports because the information in them would reveal the identity of the accuser.
“In a number of cases, the university has been able to release redacted investigative reports without jeopardizing the privacy of survivors,” McGlone said. “However, in this particular case, that simply was not possible.
Furthermore, UW Campus Title IX Coordinator Lauren Hasselbacher said the university understands the community’s concerns about sexual violence and misconduct and that UW does everything it can to respond appropriately.
In a sexual harassment investigation there are several reports and documents the public should have access to, though, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Chair Bill Lueders said. He said there should be documentation of the original allegation, reports from the investigation, records of interviews conducted and a final resolution on the findings of the investigation.
“None of those documents were released in the case involving professor Waller,” Lueders said. “We don’t know what misconduct occurred. We don’t know what misconduct was alleged.”
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McGlone said information regarding the case that was able to be shared was released to Botany department students, faculty, staff and the Letters and Science community. This did not include redacted reports from the investigation.
The university is also unable to provide information about a complaint that was filed in 2016 and was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the OCR was investigating a complaint made against the university regarding the handling of a sexual harassment case.
The OCR dismissed the case in November of 2019 because of difficulties contacting the person who filed the original complaint, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The OCR has not shared what the complaint was or what misconduct was alleged in the case.
“The university has provided as much information as we are able to under federal student privacy law,” McGlone said. “We do not control what information the U.S. Department of Education releases about their cases.”
The OCR has three remaining cases involving the University open at this time. These investigations were all opened by the OCR in 2015.
Lueders said he finds the lack of information provided by UW concerning in both cases.
“My perspective is that UW-Madison is over-applying student privacy rules,” Lueders said. “In these instances, it should not be impossible for the public to know what conduct was alleged and what misconduct was affirmed [by an investigation].”
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Lueders said the purpose of releasing information after an investigation is to allow the public to evaluate if the university carried out the case properly. Without released reports, students are left to take the university’s word on the issue, he said.
Hasselbacher said both the complainant and the accused person can request an appeal if they are unhappy with how an investigation was handled.
“We also publicly share our policies and procedures, including specific definitions of sexual harassment and misconduct, and we have mandatory training for all faculty, staff and students on these issues,” Hasselbacher said.
Hasselbacher said information about this process is available on the Title IX website.
UHS Survivor Services Coordinator Zoë Whaley wrote in an email to the Badger Herald why it is important to protect survivors’ anonymity during and after an investigation.
“The confidential support we provide survivors is essential to the healing process,” Whaley said. “Our staff supports survivors in deciding what is most helpful for them, and maintaining their privacy often determines whether or not a survivor will seek resources. Survivors manage many challenges and their privacy — both in records and more— helps maintain their safety.”
Hasselbacher said revealing accusers identities could discourage survivors from coming forward and filing a complaint.
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Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment Chair Saja Abu-Hakmeh said finding a balance between protecting survivors’ privacy and releasing information can be difficult, but it is important. Protecting sexual assault survivors during the reporting process is essential, she said, because they are the ones who have been harmed.
“You want to establish support around them, so I can understand from that perspective why reports remain redacted,” Abu-Hakmeh said. “But on the same end of that, it becomes an issue because students are unaware of the levels of assault that occur on campus.”
Abu-Hakmeh said UW has made improvements in recent years to better support survivors. The university is constantly hiring new counselors, and last semester UHS piloted extended hours for students to access mental health help, she said.
But a stronger push for change will need to occur for the university to make a bigger impact on helping with survivor recovery, Abu-Hakmeh said.
“We are committed to continuing to improve — the university is using data from the recent AAU sexual assault and misconduct survey as well as ongoing campus feedback to further enhance our education, prevention and response efforts,” Hasselbacher said.