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Outcomes of a Safety Report

December 29th, 2018
safety, contra  [html]
(This is written with the contra dance community in mind, but is reasonably general.)

If someone brings a safety report to you, that's just the beginning. You'll generally need to talk to the person the report is about, maybe other people who have context and background, possibly other organizers to get advice. One way to keep things focused is to think about what you're going for.

I see two main goals:

  • Support the reporter. Ask what they're looking for from you, and figure out what you can do.

  • Protect the community. Figure out whether the person who harmed them is likely to harm others, and if so figure out how to prevent or mitigate that harm.

These work very differently from each other in terms of how quickly to move and how certain you need to be, so let's look at them separately.

The most important thing in supporting the reporter is, don't make things worse. I talked about this in my previous post, but if bringing issues to you leaves people in a worse place than staying quiet then you just won't hear about things. Keep the reporter in the loop through the whole process, checking in with them to make sure they're still on board with what you're doing. "Is it ok for us to talk to X? What can we share with them? What can't we share with them?" When you have a proposal for what to do next (splitting things, banning someone) ask what they think before you bring it to the other person. Take feedback seriously: if they say a solution won't work for them don't just go ahead and implement it anyway. You might end up needing to offer a choice between an option they think doesn't go far enough and doing nothing, but don't just impose something you think solves their problem.

What sorts of outcomes might you come to from a perspective of supporting the reporter? They often need a way not to have to interact with the person who hurt them. Ways to limit interaction include splitting by:

  • Day: you get 1st and 3rd Tuesdays, they'll get 2nd and 4th Tuesdays.
  • Time: you get until intermission, they get after intermission.
  • Space: you stay on the right, they'll stay on the left. [1]

I think organizers should have a pretty low threshold for splitting things. You don't need to determine whether the harm counts as abuse, be sure of what happened, or be sure how blame should fall. That someone feels strongly enough about avoiding someone that they're willing to give up half the dance time/space to do so tells you a lot.

Update 2019-01-04: I'm no longer convinced having the reporter give up half the time by default makes sense.

I think organizers should generally have a much higher threshold for banning someone entirely, and here we get into protecting the community. Is this person likely to hurt others in the future? What exactly happened in this case, what went wrong, how could it have gone better? Have they done similar things with others, where there's a pattern of multiple people having similar bad experiences with the same person?

This is really hard, especially for part-time volunteers. There's a range of ways this could go. You could decide to:

  • Keep an eye on them, watching how they interact with others and seeing if you get any more reports.
  • Give them a warning, and see whether they change what they're doing.
  • Ban them, temporarily or permanently.

When to ban someone is something people disagree a lot about. Some people think you should only ban people for behavior that occurred at your dance, but that's not my position: what someone does elsewhere gives you information about what they're likely to do at your dance. Specifically, I think you should ban people when that's what you need to do to prevent them from hurting people in your community.

For example, if you have someone who meets other dancers, gets into relationships with them, and then is abusive in those relationships, it doesn't matter that the abuse happens outside your dance. They're using your dance as a way to initiate harmful relationships. Maybe there's a way to handle this with a warning, maybe you need a ban, but you shouldn't let them continue.

You might notice there isn't anything here about punishment: I don't think that's a good role for this sort of committee. While "you did X and so we're going to do Y" does have a lot in common with punishment, I think approaching it from a perspective of avoiding future harm is much more likely to work well.

Each situation is different and requires thought and patience. I find this framework is helpful for thinking through approaches and keeping the process focused, but it can't be a rigid system. Pay attention to the details of the situations you find yourself in, and figure out what makes sense for these people and your community.


[1] Contra dance is done in lines, and you only dance with the people in your line. So as long as you have enough people for two lines you can have one line be for each person.

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