Monday, March 6, 2017
The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation, House Bill 51, last Wednesday that student activists, victims’ rights advocates, and national experts like myself believe would be disastrous to efforts by colleges and universities to combat sexual assault in their campus communities.
The bill as passed by the House would take the decision away from adult sexual assault survivors about whether their case is reported to law enforcement which will have a chilling effect on reporting, and would place limits on the ability of colleges and universities to investigate reports of sexual violence that likely run afoul of federal civil rights requirements under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The bill is now pending before the State Senate’s Judiciary Committee where activists and advocates are actively working to defeat the measure. As a Georgia citizen myself, I’m urging my lawmakers to oppose passage of this deeply flawed bill.
While the House passed version of the bill, unlike the measure as originally introduced, provides that information that identifies a sexual assault survivor may not be shared with law enforcement without the survivor’s consent, it still requires colleges and universities to “promptly report” sexual assaults to either campus police or another law enforcement agency whether the survivor consents to the disclosure or not.
“If there is absolutely any duty to report any details of someone’s assault to the police, students will not come forward,” said Grace Starling, a law student and one of the activists leading efforts to oppose House Bill 51. “Sexual assault victims lose control over their own bodies when they are raped, and this bill will further deny victims the ability to take back control by forcing them to share their stories without their consent. They will not come forward in fear that they will be forced to speak to the police or the police will in some way find out who they are.”
Title IX affirmatively obligates schools to internally investigate, and to “take immediate action to eliminate…sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” Although the House passed version of this bill, unlike the original, recognizes this obligation it still would likely interfere with the ability of colleges and universities to fully meet this important obligation putting both campus safety and federal funding for colleges and universities, which Title IX is tied to, at risk. Institutions could also face millions of dollars in damages under private Title IX lawsuits brought by campus sexual assault survivors if they fail to act.
Although it is generally recognized that Title IX procedures work parallel to any law enforcement investigation, the House passed bill contains potentially confusing language that no Title IX “investigation shall obstruct or prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation.” This could lead campus officials to hold back on taking important steps to protect a survivor or other students that no law enforcement process can afford them, such as promptly removing a dangerous sexual predator from the campus. The due process rights of the accused students at state institutions are protected by no less than the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution which can be vigorously enforced in court.
In my role as a Board member of the national not-for-profit and victim rights organization SurvJustice, I hear reports from our legal staff of how the criminal justice system routinely fails survivors on campuses and just how important a robust response from their college or university is to ensuring ongoing access to education guaranteed as a civil right under Title IX.
“You really have to be completely detached from the issue of sexual assault to even suggest law enforcement is somehow better capable,” my colleague Laura Dunn, Executive Director of SurvJustice told the Associated Press. “We have cases all the time where survivors go to the police first and nothing is done; no report is filed, there’s no follow-up.”
In my role as a campus security consultant I work with dedicated higher education professionals across the country who have devoted their careers to assisting campus sexual assault survivors, including professional investigators and disciplinary officers. These professionals in Georgia who have devoted their careers to this important work should be allowed to do their jobs unimpeded by this misguided legislation.
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