If a peer, friend or student discloses sexual assault to you, it is often difficult to know how to react, yet your reaction is crucial in helping them seek support. Here are some helpful tips on how to respond to someone who has disclosed a sexual assault incident to you. The first step is to determine whether or not you're a mandated reporter.
If you are not employed by the University, you are not required to report sexual misconduct incidents to Title IX Programs. There are still steps that you can follow to help the person who is confiding in you, and encourage them to seek support.
It’s important to take a moment to acknowledge how incredibly difficult it can be to tell someone about this type of trauma. Showing your appreciation for their trust at the beginning of the conversation may help them feel more comfortable.
You can begin to show your support by saying something like: "Thank you for telling me this. It means a lot to me that you feel you can share this with me."
Even though your first instinct may be to try to give advice on what to do, it’s important to let them make their own choices about what to do next. You don’t have to have all the answers––you just have to listen and let them know that you are there for them to help in any way they need.
Listen without judgment and give them your undevided attention. Stay calm, even if what they're telling you is upsetting you, try not to react with anger or outrage.
Examples of supportive, non-judgmental reactions:
- Give your undivided attention. If someone starts telling you what happened to them, put down whatever you’re doing and pay attention to them.
- Focus on their feelings. Listen to whatever they are telling you in a calm and empathetic manner. Even if you’re feeling angry or upset or shocked, try to keep those emotions within yourself and focus your attention on supporting the person in front of you.
Use supportive phrases, such as:
- “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
- “I believe you.”
- “You are not alone.”
- “It’s not your fault.”
Examples of What NOT to Do:
- Don’t ask if they’re absolutely sure it happened. This will likely make them feel that you do not believe them.
- Don’t say that what they’ve described doesn’t sound like sexual assault to you, or that it “isn’t that bad.”
- Don’t ask for details about what happened.
- Don’t insist that they have to do certain things––such as report to police, get a sexual assault forensic exam, or disclose to others. It is fine to let someone know that these options exist and to ask them if they are interested in pursuing any of them, but you should never pressure them.
Mandated Reporters are those individuals who, based on their position at the University, are required to report to the Title IX Coordinator all disclosures of potential prohibited behaviors as soon as possible.
At the University of West Florida, Mandated Reporters are all persons employed by the University, part-time or full-time. Mandated Reporters or any individual wishing to report potential prohibited behavior must provide information to the University’s Title IX Coordinator whose contact information is listed at the bottom of this page. Information may be provided by email, phone call, drop in meeting, or using the Title IX Incident Report Form.
What to do if someone reports to you?
First inform them that you are a mandated reporter who has to inform the University of any disclosures regarding sexual harassment or misconduct. Ask the reporting party if they would like to proceed with the conversation. If not, respect their decision and provide them with resources in case they need further assistance. If so, continue on to the next section.
Ensure that the person is not in any immediate danger. Ask if they are safe to go to class, go to work, go home, etc. If there is an immediate threat, ask them if you can call on their behalf:
- Law enforcement - UWF Police Department has plain clothes officers if needed
- Dean of Students Office
- Title IX Programs
Listen without judgment. Make note of any details you may need to include in a report to the Title IX Coordinator including names of parties involved, dates, locations, specific behaviors.
Listen, but do not investigate. Often when well-meaning people start asking others’ questions or attempting to mediate, it can prevent the Title IX process from working like it is supposed to. This could include violating parties’ privacy, preventing our office from receiving un-influenced first hand knowledge, initiating punitive requirements prior to a finding of responsibility, or even providing well intentioned accommodations which then prevent equitable access to University activities and programs including classroom engagement.
Everyone reacts differently to their circumstances, and there is no right or wrong way to deal with personal trauma. Validate the person’s reaction to the situation without making any empty promises. “You have every right to be upset” or “I’m so sorry you are dealing with this” is perfectly acceptable.
At this stage you and or the Title IX staff can seek to empower the reporting party with choices. Those who have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct often feel as though they have lost control over their own circumstances, so allowing them to start making their own decisions is a step toward healing.
Remind them that you have to report this incident to the Title IX Coordinator, but also encourage them to seek out other resources. We have a list on our website of on and off campus resources for those seeking help.