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Va. Senate panel advances mandatory reporting bill for campus sexual assault

A panel of Virginia senators advanced a bill Monday that would require public colleges to report an alleged campus sexual assault to police within 24 hours of notification, defying the wishes of some survivors and their advocates.

On the heels of high-profile cases of rape on college campuses, many victims’ advocates worried that in their zeal to punish perpetrators, lawmakers might take away victims’ rights when they are most vulnerable — and cause a chilling effect on reporting.

The move is one of the first indications of how the Virginia General Assembly might act at a time when a scandal at the University of Virginia prompted by a discredited Rolling Stone article and federal investigations into rape on college campuses have put this issue front and center.

Under the mandatory reporting bill, any faculty member, administrator or full-time staff member of a public college or university would face a misdemeanor charge for failing to report an alleged sexual assault to police. Crisis center counselors would be exempt from the requirement.

Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), who sponsored the bill, said quickly involving law enforcement is the best way to ensure that investigations are handled properly.

“Instead of having the colleges just sweep these things under the table, we force them to go into the law enforcement arena, where they’re handled in a routine fashion,” he said.

But Kristine Hall, public policy director at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said, “Mandatory reporting is not the solution, and it’s more likely to be counterproductive and actually suppress disclosures and reports than it is to encourage” them.

Federal education officials who enforce the antidiscrimination law known as Title IX have said the 1972 statute does not require schools to report alleged sexual violence to police. But the Obama administration also has said schools are obligated to resolve internal sexual violence complaints promptly and equitably.

The administration’s aggressive enforcement of Title IX in recent years has fueled efforts at colleges nationwide to beef up internal systems for investigating sexual assault allegations. Groups supporting the rights of accused students say colleges are ill-equipped to handle such allegations and should leave them to police whenever possible.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who is working on a House bill to address campus sexual assault, said the Senate bill may violate Title IX confidentiality requirements.

Some university officials voiced reservations about the Senate bill. Rose Pascarell, vice president for university life at George Mason University, said a mandate for rapid police notification could be “a huge disincentive” to some students who are weighing whether to tell the school about an alleged sexual assault.

“We are trying in many ways to make sure students know there are options,” she said. “It’s a delicate dance in those conversations, encouraging someone to come forward.”

Brian Whitson, a spokesman for the College of William and Mary, said school officials have concerns about “unintended consequences” of the bill. “Our worst fear is that some survivors of sexual violence will not come forward if they believe they will be forced into a legal process they don’t want to take part in,” he said.

The bill emerged from a subcommittee of the Senate Education and Health Committee. It will next be considered by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, whose co-chairmen, Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), declined to comment on the issue.

The parents of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who disappeared in 2009 after leaving a concert in Charlottesville, have expressed support for some form of mandatory reporting. Harrington's remains were found months after her disappearance.

A man who police say is linked to Harrington’s case had been accused of sexual assaults at two other universities a decade ago, and he has been charged in the more recent abduction of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old from Fairfax County who was also found slain.

Claire Wyatt, a 2013 University of Virginia graduate and survivor of campus sexual assault, said she was reluctant to go to police immediately for fear that she would not be treated fairly while in a fragile state.

Wyatt, an organizer with New Virginia Majority, testified before lawmakers last week, but the same lawmakers heard no public comments Monday.

“The bottom line is that five white men decided how colleges and universities in Virginia should handle sexual assault cases without their female colleagues or female survivors’ voices being heard at all,” she said of the lawmakers who approved the proposal Monday.

Black, a former prosecutor, said timeliness is the most important factor.

“I understand where they’re coming from, but I have prosecuted hundreds of rape cases and it is essential to move quickly because if you do that, you get the rape test kit performed, you’re able to do lineups, you’re able to get fresh witness testimony, you’re able to do a polygraph when that’s necessary,” he said.

Lawmakers also advanced a measure that would require public and private colleges to note the transcripts of students who have been suspended or expelled for — or have withdrawn during the investigation of — certain crimes.