RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers remain divided about how to protect victims of campus sexual assault and college communities even as bills requiring mandatory reporting to police wind their way through the legislature.
A panel of delegates on Tuesday advanced a bill that would force police to notify the commonwealth’s attorney within 48 hours of the start of an investigation.
But they have yet to tackle the most controversial piece of legislation. A bill sponsored by Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle) would require colleges to report sexual assaults to police if it is determined that the health and safety of students or others is at risk. The bill aims to work within federal confidentiality requirements of the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX, while increasing the chances that police get involved as soon as possible.
“The goal is to protect this victim and also to protect more victims in the future,” Bell said of the latest version of his bill.
Also Tuesday, at the federal level, U.S. Sens. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation that would require high schools to teach “safe relationship behavior” and sexual-assault prevention in health education.
Kaine got the idea from a recent meeting he attended at the University of Virginia with advocates for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
The University of Virginia was put on the front lines of the discussion after a scandal prompted by a discredited Rolling Stone article and federal investigations into rape on college campuses across the country.
Last week, a panel of Virginia state senators raised the ire of victims rights advocates when they advanced a bill that would require public colleges to report an alleged campus sexual assault to police within 24 hours of notification.
The move defied the wishes of some survivors and their advocates, who worry 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.
Delegates on Tuesday advanced a separate 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public and private colleges to note the transcripts of students who have been suspended or expelled for — or have withdrawn during the investigation of — violations of a college’s sexual conduct code.
“This is the Jesse Matthews bill,” said Del. Jimmie Massie III (R-Henrico).
Matthews was charged in the recent abduction of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old from Fairfax County. Police say Matthews is also linked to the case of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who disappeared in 2009 after leaving a concert in Charlottesville. Her remains were found months after her disappearance.
He also had been accused of sexual assaults at two other universities a decade ago.
Harrington’s parents favor a bill, first filed by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), that would require reporting to the commonwealth’s attorney soon after the start of an investigation.
The bill also has the support of Susan Russell, the Newport News mother of a campus rape survivor, who said her daughter’s assailant committed subsequent assaults after she filed a police report.
“He was a serial predator who knew the university would handle each and every felony he committed as an administrative matter,” she said.
Under Bell’s mandatory-reporting bill, a faculty member or administrator must report a campus sexual assault to the college’s Title IX coordinator within four hours of notification.
If a college’s Title IX coordinator believes the health and safety of a student is not in immediate danger, the case must be documented and reported to a team, including administrators, police and prosecutors. The team will discuss the case without identifying the victim and make another decision about whether to report. Nothing would stop police on the team from investigating the case on their own, Bell said.
The bill is similar to one offered earlier by Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington).
Massie, who called for a moment of silence for victims, said the raft of bills have a long way to go before final passage.
“I want to assure you we take this incredibly seriously,” he said.