Campus sexual assault bills go to Virginia governor’s desk

RICHMOND, Va. — It’s now up to Virginia’s governor to sign legislation passed by the General Assembly that seeks to stymie sexual assaults on college campuses by requiring higher-education employees to report such incidents and by creating sexual assault response teams.

On Friday, before they adjourned their 2015 session, both the Virginia House and Senate gave final approval to two identical bills — HB 1930 and SB 712 — to address the issue. The bills, crafted by a conference committee of delegates and senators, passed unanimously. They will be sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to be signed into law.

Approval of the legislation came after a series of high-profile rape cases on college campuses where responses by university authorities often left victims without a sense of justice by allowing perpetrators off the hook. To preserve their school’s reputation, some administrators chose to sweep the allegations under the rug and to keep them out of the public eye.

The bills aim to correct that situation.

“As we worked on this legislation, our two goals were to ensure that Virginia colleges protect victims of assault and that we prevent future victims,” said Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who sponsored HB 1930. “It was our objective to put some teeth in the law so we get sexual predators off of campuses.”

The legislation has five components. It:

  •   Creates a multidisciplinary sexual assault response team to handle cases;
  •  Mandates that employees of higher education institutions inform administrators within four hours after they become aware of a felony sexual assault on a student;
  • Establishes an avenue for victims to receive information about victim-support services and access to an advocate who can provide a trauma-sensitive response;
  • Requires campus police and law-enforcement agencies to notify the commonwealth’s attorney of any reported sexual assaults;
  • Mandates that campus law-enforcement receive victim sensitivity training.

Federal laws such as Title IX also address campus sexual assaults and student privacy, and state legislators had to tailor their bills accordingly, said Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, who sponsored SB 712.

“We were somewhat boxed in by federal law, but we worked around that challenge by putting law-enforcement officials on the Title IX committees,” he said.

A 2007 report by the National Institute of Justice found that one in five women are sexually assaulted while enrolled in college. A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.

Virginia lawmakers hope the bills will increase the likelihood that campus sexual assaults are reported and investigated.

“Strengthening Virginia’s reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses was one of the main objectives of this year’s session,” said Black, who served with Bell on the conference committee.

However, the bills do not include specific measures to stop sexual assaults from happening in the first place. The original bill required university employees to go directly to the police upon being made aware of a sexual assault. Some organizations such as Virginia21 and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance said that could backfire and make sexual assault victims less likely to come forward.

As amended and passed, the bills now require that higher education employees must report sexual assaults to their Title IX coordinator “as soon as practicable” and then they must alert the campus threat response team as soon as possible. The team must meet within 72 hours to review the report.

Lawmakers brought in advocacy groups and sexual assault survivors to help revise the legislation and give victims the option of filing a police report and pursuing legal action. Advocacy groups involved with the legislation are pleased with the final result.

Alexis Rodgers, communications director for Virginia21, said, “The legislation lets survivors who are adults make decisions on their own, so they can seek the help they need.”

Last August, McAuliffe formed a task force to combat campus sexual violence. During the course of crafting the legislation, several members of the task force weighed in.

The Governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence will submit a report to McAuliffe by June 1. Legislators plan to use the report’s recommendations in the next General Assembly session to continue to address the issue of campus sexual assaults.

Story was written by Kevin Lata of Capital News Service.

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