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General Assembly Takes on Campus Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is an issue getting some attention in this session of Virginia’s General Assembly.Several bills have been proposed to require colleges to report any violent incident, including a sexual assault, to local law enforcement.  As WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports, the proposals are not without controversy.

By the time the General Assembly convened this year, key details in the now-infamous Rolling Stone article about a rape and subsequent cover-up at the University of Virginia had been discredited. The larger and all-too-real problem of sexual assault on college campuses, however, remains high on many legislators’ priority lists.

DEL. ROB BELL: What we’re trying to address would be when and how a college administrator should make report when he has evidence that a violent crime has been committed on college campuses.

Delegate Rob Bell is a Republican whose district lies to the north and east of Charlottesville. He’s introduced one of several controversial “mandatory reporting” bills now before the legislature.

BELL: My view is that there’s certainly many things that colleges can handle adequately, but there does reach a point where the offense is so violent and so serious that it really is more appropriately addressed through the criminal justice system.

In broad terms, Bell’s bill would require faculty and administrators to notify law enforcement any time they learn that a violent sexual crime may have been committed against a student. There are some complications with federal law, so some of these reports would be made through another university official.

KATE McCORD: Mandatory reporting is a well-meaning concept. Our concerns with it are that it takes the control away from survivors from being able to decide whether or not to make that report themselves.

Kate McCord is communications director with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. The group promotes “trauma-informed” responses to victims of sexual violence.

McCORD: That includes allowing survivors their own agency in determining where their case goes, having confidential advisors on campus and off campus. We’re advocating for an option of anonymous reporting for victims or survivors and mandatory training for investigators.

Until the criminal justice system responds more sensitively to victims’ needs, she says, mandatory reporting laws could decrease reporting by victims who fear being re-victimized by the process. At the same time, Bell says colleges have to weigh two different victims’ needs.

BELL: The first would be, of course, the victim of the crime itself, the survivor of what happened. The second would be, since there’s often a re-offense problem, you have the next victim. And trying to balance those is one of the more complicated issues in criminal law. This is not unique to sexual assaults, it’s not unique to campuses, but you have a person in front of you who has been victimized by a crime and you’re afraid that if you don’t get the guy who did it, that six weeks, six months from now, someone else will walk through the door with the same offense.

His bill would require colleges to make advocates trained in trauma-informed response available to victims. It passed committee last week and is now before the full House of Delegates for a vote. Another similar reporting bill has also made it to the House floor.  And in the Senate, a mandatory reporting bill passed a committee vote this week. In all, McCord says, the General Assembly is paying an unprecedented level of attention to campus sexual assault.

McCORD: It is fundamentally a very positive move in the right direction, absolutely. And the spirit of mandatory reporting policies is that sexual assault should be taken seriously because it is a crime. So we understand and acknowledge and appreciate that is part of these bills that are going through the General Assembly.

As always, the details are the tricky part.

BELL: I think people understand that this is a difficult issue and a complicated issue, and we’re trying to find a way to make again our colleges safer for the crime victim that’s right in front of us, but also try to prevent further victims in the future.

And the best way to do that, McCord says, is to get at the very root of the problem.

McCORD: What truly works is real prevention, is teaching about what consent looks like and how to practice consent. It’s about teaching bystanders how to step in and say something.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.