Lawmakers in several states are seeking to address the high-profile problem of sexual assaults on college campuses, but their bills have encountered criticism and legal complexities. Among the contentious measures, some are viewed as infringing on victims' rights and others as too favorable to accused students.
In three states — Virginia, New Jersey and Rhode Island — lawmakers entered the 2015 session hoping to pass bills requiring college officials to promptly report all alleged on-campus sexual assaults to local law enforcement agencies. The bills' supporters said too few cases get reported, as evidenced by recent Justice Department estimates that only 20 percent of campus sexual assault victims go to police, compared to one-third of victims of assaults that happen elsewhere.
However, each bill has faced forceful opposition. A measure in Virginia was scaled back before winning approval last week, and the main sponsors of measures in Rhode Island and New Jersey now say they are open to amendments to address some of the objections.
Critics say mandatory-reporting bills would conflict with federal requirements that victims of sexual assaults be allowed to decide for themselves whether law enforcement should be notified. That policy is widely backed by college administrators, victims' rights advocates and anti-violence groups
"All of us want to support the victim of a sexual assault," said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, a national association representing student affairs administrators at more than 2,000 colleges and universities.
"We need to be cautious about things that sound right but actually create a chilling environment that might deter a victim from coming forward," Kruger said. He noted that many victims of campus sexual assaults knew their assailants beforehand, and might want to avoid a police investigation even if they sought support from school officials.
Among those opposing the mandatory-reporting proposal in New Jersey was Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
"Mandatory reporting disregards the traumatic experience of survivors — whose bodies become crime scenes — taking away their choice and privacy, just as their attackers did," Teffenhart wrote in a column in The Star-Ledger newspaper. "Please let us not assert our desire to hold campuses accountable at the expense of survivors."
New Jersey Sen. Peter Barnes said the bill he is sponsoring would not force the victim to cooperate with the police, but it would require college officials to immediately notify law enforcement of the allegations.
"A lot of the colleges seek to discourage victims from going to the police," Barnes said. "That's out of concern for student, maybe, but also out of concern for the school's reputation. They circle the wagons."
Barnes said he was willing to consider changes to the bill, perhaps to provide an option for the victim's name to be withheld when a report is made to police.
"But the colleges must report," he said. "I will not agree to give the colleges discretion."
The sponsor of Rhode Island's mandatory-reporting bill, Rep. Mia Ackerman, has responded to critics and says she is open to easing the reporting requirement to ensure that victims' concerns are addressed. She has been meeting with college officials and other experts to get their input before deciding what changes to make.
"I knew it was a delicate subject," said Ackerman, who has a son in college and a daughter heading there soon. "Years ago, we didn't talk about it, but now, by keeping the subject alive, people are becoming more aware."
In Virginia, mandatory-reporting bills were introduced this session in both legislative chambers, but were scaled back because of concerns that a firm mandate might run afoul of federal law and discourage victims from coming forward.
The measure winning final approval on Feb. 27 drops the requirement that all alleged sexual assaults be reported promptly to local law enforcement. Instead, it requires that the information be reported to a campus review committee, which would notify police if that step was deemed necessary to protect the health or safety of the victim or other individuals. The review commission would include a member of the campus police or security force.
Other states are trying different tactics.
Last year, California became the first state to adopt a so-called "yes means yes" law — requiring "an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement" before students engage in sexual activity. The law, which applies to all colleges and universities that receive state money for financial aid, means silence or a lack of resistance can no longer be deemed consent.
New York's public university system recently adopted a similar policy, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging lawmakers to apply that policy to private colleges and universities as well.
In North Dakota and South Carolina, bills have been introduced reflecting concern about the rights of students accused of sexual assault and other serious non-academic infractions. The measures — similar to a pioneering bill passed in North Carolina in 2013 — would let accused students be represented by a lawyer during campus judicial hearings.
NASPA, the association representing student affairs administrators, has criticized these measures, saying they would give an unfair advantage to the accused students.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free speech and student rights on campus, issued a vehement rebuttal of NASPA and praised the proposed bills.
"Assistance from an attorney helps accused students better navigate these increasingly unfair and dangerously imbalanced campus proceedings — 'kangaroo courts' that have prompted sharp, continuing criticism," the foundation said.
The rights of accused students are addressed in a bill pending in Congress that seeks more accountability from colleges and universities in combatting sexual assault. A provision in the bill would require both the victim and accused student to be notified within 24 hours of a school's decision to proceed with disciplinary hearings on an alleged sexual assault.
Under the proposed bill, called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, colleges and universities would be required to designate confidential advisers to assist sexual assault victims. The advisers would coordinate support services, explain options for reporting the assault, and offer guidance if such a report is made.
The legislation, which carries fines of up to $150,000 for violations, mandates training standards for on-campus staff on how to handle sexual assaults and requires schools to enter into formal agreements with local law enforcement agencies on how to share information and delineate responsibilities.
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security On Campus, says there's a wide variance in how campus security forces handle sexual assault cases. Many smaller schools lack investigative capabilities, she said, while some bigger institutions have extensive resources. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, the Department of Special Services deploys what it calls a "sensitive crime investigation unit" on the Philadelphia campus.
However, according to a survey conducted by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, security personnel at about one-third of U.S. colleges lack training in how to respond to cases of sexual violence.
Some gun-rights supporters have another suggestion for curbing campus sexual assaults — allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons while at school.
A few states, including Idaho and Utah, already allow concealed weapons on campus, and there's a pending bill in Nevada that would follow their path. Its sponsor, Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, suggested to The New York Times that rape at colleges would decline when "these young, hot little girls on campus" acquire guns and "these sexual predators get a bullet in their head."
Some education officials and student groups have criticized Fiore's bill as misguided and dangerous to students, but she insisted this week that it would win approval this session.
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