When Campuses and Law Enforcement Collide: Preparing for Co-Occurring Sexual Assault Investigations

by Anne P. DePrince & Julie M. Olomi

With more than half of campus sexual assaults occurring during the Fall, much of schools’ policy attention in the latter half of 2019 was probably focused on handling internal Title IX investigations. However, when sexual assaults are also reported to the police, campuses must also be prepared to navigate co-occurring Title IX and criminal investigations.

In co-occurring investigations, two separate and often-complex sets of procedures unfold. Campuses and law enforcement agencies each have their own legal obligations, timelines for investigations, and even language. Campuses talk about complainants, police about victims, and advocates talk about survivors. Criminal investigations and prosecutions can take months or even years. Campuses must take immediate action, with the exception of allowances for brief delays related to time-sensitive law enforcement activity, such as executing a search warrant to preserve evidence prior not campus notification of the respondent.

Evidence collected in the criminal justice investigation can enhance the Title IX investigation, giving investigators access to information they may not otherwise have. However, navigating co-occurring investigations can leave schools, police, and prosecutors feeling like they are working at cross-purposes, making things harder for everyone involved. Such complexities and frustration along with lack of support from administrations can add to the pressures that have driven alarming turnover in Title IX office nationally. But, how should campuses and criminal justice agencies prepare for co-occurring investigations?

Title IX and Co-Occurring Investigations

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that outlined schools’ obligations to conduct investigations of sexual harassment and violence reports. Because what constitutes a Title IX violation may differ from a crime, the letter laid out expectations that schools would conduct their own investigations, separate from any criminal investigations. Further, schools were instructed not to wait for criminal matters to conclude before responding.

To promote collaboration and coordination between higher education institutions and law enforcement, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued a guidance in 2015 for preventing and responding to campus sexual assault. The advice focused on the what, encouraging schools and law enforcement to collaborate, communicate, and meet their respective obligations. The puzzle was in how campuses and criminal justice agencies would do so.

The Trump administration has since rolled back the Obama-era advisements as well as proposed new Title IX rules that have yet to be finalized. Regardless of new rules, though, campuses will still need to be prepared for co-occurring investigations, particularly as states start taking matters into their own hands. For example, Colorado passed SB19-007 in 2019, which among other things, provides guidance to campuses on how to conduct investigations – from codifying confidentiality for campus-based victim advocates to addressing how questions are asked.

How Did One Community Work Together?

Over more than a year, we observed a multidisciplinary team charged with improving co-occurring investigations. We tracked and catalogued what they talked about during monthly meetings. We interviewed individual team members about their perceptions of the team’s efforts and impact. And we learned several things that can help campuses.

The team involved professionals from campus, criminal justice, and community-based agencies in a single jurisdiction across diverse roles – such as detectives, prosecutors, advocates, Title IX investigators, campus safety directors, and lawyers.

Their charge to improve co-occurring investigations began with a focus on developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that could clear define roles and processes during a co-occurring investigation. Therefore, we suspected their meeting time would largely focus on developing new procedures together. Instead, we discovered that they invested twice as much discussion on explaining existing procedures to one other than hashing out new procedures. This revealed the reality that the procedures at their home institutions were complex and nuanced, requiring them to invest time in explaining approaches to each other.

Team members spent most of their meeting time building relationships by sharing information, educating each other, and problem solving. For example, the group often diverged from pre-set agenda items to respond to problems that emerged in their discussion. They were learning in real-time, sometimes about identifying potential obstacles before they became actual problems in any particular co-occurring investigation. In other instances, the particular ways that one campus and law enforcement addressed an investigation issue let campuses learn before that same issue arose on their campuses.

Individual team members told us that being part of the multidisciplinary team helped them do their jobs better at their home institutions. For example, when a problem arose in real time during an investigation, they knew who to call at other institutions and had trusted relationships to leverage. Not surprisingly, team members valued having diverse membership from across institutions to build networks that could help them respond effectively during investigations.

Supervisor and institutional buy-in was critical for team members. Some team members faced hurdles to participating in terms of skeptical supervisors and administrators who did not seem to value or understand the importance of investing time in the multidisciplinary team. Yes, the team members themselves saw ways that being part of the multidisciplinary team could help them better respond on their campuses.

As Campuses Move Forward

Schools, police, and prosecutors do not lack for procedures to do their jobs. However, they do not necessarily know each other’s procedures in enough detail to be effective during co-occurring investigations. In the community we studied, building capacity to navigate co-occurring sexual assault investigations took time and relationships to meet the promise of information sharing and learning together.

Regular meetings of a multidisciplinary team gave campuses a chance to build networks that they could draw on when they faced real-time challenges during co-occurring investigations. The team also created a local opportunity for ongoing learning and professional development at a time when campuses may have limited funds to send investigators to external trainings.

Co-occurring investigations are inevitable. Multidisciplinary teams promise to help campus and criminal justice agencies clarify roles in the face of complexity (such as through the development of MOUs) and advance learning to improve investigation processes. However, institutional and supervisor buy-in are needed to support campus staff – from Title IX offices to campus safety and advocates – to be part of multidisciplinary teams with their criminal justice and community counterparts. Research from our team and others points to the potential return on investment as multidisciplinary teams help individuals do their jobs better.

Want to know more? Check out a journal article describing this research here