Newly proposed D.C. legislation would require colleges to put a permanent and prominent notation on the academic transcripts of students who are convicted of sexual assault or who try to withdraw from school while under investigation for sexual misconduct — a “Scarlet Letter” that would follow them to new schools and graduate programs or into the workforce.
Council member Anita Bonds’s proposal Tuesday — which comes as the nation is paying more attention to the widespread problem of college sexual assault — immediately drew praise from several colleagues for its bold approach to attacking the issue. But it also caught officials at the city’s colleges and universities off guard, proposing what is certain to be a controversial way of permanently punishing those accused of assaults.
Many advocates say that students who are accused of sexual assault already lack the kinds of protections that are standard in the U.S. judicial system and the notation would add a layer of permanent accountability for allegations that in some cases won’t be prosecuted.
The legislation could have far-reaching implications — and significant cost — for the city’s colleges and universities as they seek to prevent and respond to sexual assaults.
Bonds (D-At Large), who is also head of the Democratic Party in the District, cited a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found that 20 percent of women who attended college within the past four years had an unwanted sexual experience while in school there.
“I hear these statistics, and I am outraged as many in the community are,” she said. Three council members joined Bonds in introducing the measure.
In addition to the marks on student records, the measure would require all students at colleges and universities in the District to complete sexual-assault-prevention classes within six weeks of arriving on campus. Schools also would have to hire an on-campus sexual-assault worker for every 2,000 enrolled students. And when a sexual-assault investigation is initiated, campuses would have to offer the victim the option to have an advocate present. School officials also would be required to be trained, and the institutions would face annual compliance reviews.
“For too long, we hear stories of women being raped, and the first question asked is, ‘What were you wearing?’ or ‘How did you handle that drink?’ ” Bonds said in introducing the legislation. “These questions place the blame on the victim, and it redirects our thinking away from the better question: What did anyone do to stop the person from being raped?”
Spokesmen for Georgetown, American and George Washington universities did not respond to questions about the proposed legislation Tuesday afternoon. Universities nationwide have been under increasing pressure to deal with campus sexual assaults, with dozens facing federal probes for their handling of recent cases.
Sally Kram, a spokeswoman for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, said the organization had not been consulted and was not prepared to take a position on the proposed legislation.
In a statement, the consortium said university officials looked forward to talking with Bonds about what they already do relative to the issue and about how best to align city legislation with the extensive federal oversight in place and multiple bills pending in Congress.
K.C. Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College, had several concerns about the bill. If a university is required to say that it has determined that a student is a rapist and the school puts that on an official transcript, that could affect that person’s chances for employment for many years to come, he said.
“If the student is guilty, that’s not anywhere near sufficient punishment,” Johnson said. “But if the student is innocent, this is a life-altering thing. If they’re going to put it on a student’s permanent record, they need to do a lot more than they do now to be sure they get it right.”
The bill would also add tremendous costs to colleges, which would have to hire more employees, he said. But the larger issue was one of fairness: If one starts with a presumption, once an accusation is made, that a crime has occurred and someone is guilty, the proposal makes sense, he said. But if the universities want to ensure that the accused person has the right to a defense as well, it’s problematic.
“People, for very understandable reasons, see this as a crisis,” he said. “They want to help people who are victims of crime. But the whole purpose of government, of civil liberties on these issues, is to ensure that processes are in place to ensure fairness in cases where emotions are at their high point.”
Bonds cast the issue of sexual assault on college campuses as one largely divided along gender lines, with men most often the perpetrators of violence and women the victims.
“We must educate the young men of society to be part of the solution,” she said. “We must teach our young men how to respect others and how not to rape.”
In the Post-Kaiser poll, 52 percent of current and recent students nationally said harsher punishments for those found guilty of sexual assault would be “very effective” in preventing sexual assault.
Students were less confident in the effectiveness of mandatory training in prevention programs — 29 percent said they would be very effective, while 50 percent saw them as “somewhat effective.”
The poll also found that 71 percent of students thought that their university administrations are doing enough to prevent sexual assault.
The council adjourned on Tuesday until late September, when a hearing on the measure is expected.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.