Va. General Assembly to consider recommendations of task force on sex assault

WASHINGTON — The Virginia General Assembly next year will likely take up some of the recommendations a state task force made to help sexual assault victims on college campuses and to help prevent assaults.

Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, said he expects lawmakers to “pull some ideas” from the recommendations made Thursday by the task force.

Many of the recommendations do not require legislative approval, and instead expand on existing programs, could rely on executive orders from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe or are more simple suggestions, such as better communication among campus leaders, crisis teams and police.

“Campus sexual violence is a nationwide problem … in the last year, Virginia unfortunately had to face some very difficult truths about the reality that [is] this terrible threat to our citizens and our families,” McAuliffe said Thursday.

The task force was formed last August, before the issue of campus sexual assault took on greater prominence following the death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham and the now-debunked Rolling Stone article that detailed an alleged gang rape in a fraternity house there.

McAuliffe says the changes will make Virginia’s schools safer and stronger for students.

Black said he believes new laws, like one that requires notations on transcripts of students expelled for violent sexual offenses, may help prevent future attacks.

“We’re trying to increase the involvement of law enforcement, so that we can take sexual predators off the campuses,” Black says.

In this year’s General Assembly session Black sponsored a bill that requires nearly all colleges in Virginia to form new panels to consider reports of sexual assaults and whether those assaults should be reported to prosecutors.

Black’s bill, ceremonially signed into law this week, was co-sponsored by four Democrats.

It increases the involvement of law enforcement in initial reports of potential sexual assaults by requiring that the reports go to a panel, including the school’s Title IX coordinator, a student advocate and a law enforcement representative.

The law enforcement representative, or any other member of the panel, can decide to report the possible crime to prosecutors.

Victims rights advocates expressed concern about some of the details of initial proposals, but say there were improvements made when language was added to make it clear that counselors and other health or legal service providers do not have to report the sexual assault to the panel if the victim does not want it reported.

A third bill that McAuliffe signed into law details a new requirement that colleges have memorandums of understanding with local or state police that cover investigations of sexual assaults.

Black says students on campus this summer or beginning college this fall should learn important lessons.

“One of the things we really want to get across to parents is that they need to caution their daughters particularly that most of these campus sexual assaults occur during the very first weeks of the freshman term. And what happens is girls will get on campus and they’ll be seeking out friends, and it’s very easy to find the wrong ones, and then if there’s alcohol involved, that’s when they tend to get in trouble,” Black says.

A 2007 study of several thousand students at two colleges did find that students who were assaulted while incapacitated were very likely to have been drinking, but it did not point to a cause and effect.

The study found that most victims of forcible sexual assault knew their assailants, and that 89.2 percent of those assaulted while they were incapacitated had been drinking before the attacks. Only 33.4 percent of other forcible sexual assault victims who responded to the survey said they had been drinking before they were attacked. The percentages were weighted by researchers.

Many college health or crisis centers warn incoming students of a “red zone” between the start of the school year and Thanksgiving when they may be at higher risk of sexual assault.

While this study is sometimes cited as evidence of that, the distribution of the reported assaults over the course of the year was not noted to be statistically significant. Still, the researchers used that data to conclude that fall is “clearly … the most prevalent season for sexual assault” of college students.

A 2008 study looking at just 100 students suggests that there may in fact be several “red zones” over the course of a college year and career based on varying workloads and campus norms.

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