RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers on Thursday heard two hours of sometimes emotional testimony about campus sexual assault — and then threw up their hands.
On the heels of high-profile cases of rape on college campuses, lawmakers are struggling with how to punish the perpetrators without taking away victims’ rights when they are most vulnerable.
At issue is whether to require school officials to immediately report rapes on campus to police and the local commonwealth’s attorney and whether to require the college to report crimes on a perpetrator’s transcript as a warning to other schools.
Claire Wyatt, a 2013 University of Virginia graduate, recounted through tears to members of a Senate subcommittee and a packed hearing room her experience as a victim of sexual assault.
“You have no idea how you’d feel until you go through something like this, and that’s not something I’d wish on anyone,” said, Wyatt, now 24 and an organizer with New Virginia Majority.
Wyatt, who used the university’s sexual misconduct process, which she described as imperfect, said she would not have gone to campus authorities for help if she knew it would trigger a police report.
The subcommittee voted to send a raft of bills addressing the issue back to the full committee with a recommendation to have a courts committee address the finer points.
A bill filed by Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) would require college governing boards to establish an official understanding with a local crisis center to counsel student victims and offer them the option of anonymous reporting.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) has introduced legislation that would require campus and local police to notify the local commonwealth’s attorney within 48 hours of the start of an investigation into a felony sexual assault on a college campus.
There are also many bills that would require mandatory reporting to law enforcement; the parents of slain college student Morgan Harrington have called for passage of one of them.
The issue is figuring prominently in this year’s legislative session. At a meeting last week, Harrington’s mother, Gil, testified, referring to the different responses to assaults on and off campus this way: “We have already learned from history that separate but equal doesn’t work.”
Harrington, a Virginia Tech student, disappeared after leaving a concert in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2009. A man who police say is linked to her 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.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has proposed enlisting the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to help public colleges and universities update their sexual misconduct policies by the end of July. They should take into consideration recommendations of a task force McAuliffe created this summer to study the issue, he said.
The task force, which is chaired by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), must finish its work by June.
“So many Virginians are looking to us to come forward with concrete recommendations,” Herring said at a meeting this month.
According to federal data, students found responsible for sexual assault are more likely to be suspended than expelled and as likely to be ordered into counseling or given a reprimand.
At the University of Virginia, no student has been expelled for sexual misconduct in the past decade. The school is under federal investigation for its handling of sexual violence reports, as are James Madison University, the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond and Virginia Military Institute.
Thursday’s meeting highlighted the complexities of the issue. Some advocates have said that the reporting requirement could discourage women from coming forward and go against their own interests when they do. For some victims, putting their lives back together is more important than punishing the perpetrators, advocates say.
Nancy Chi Cantalupo, a legal expert working for a student affairs administrators’ association, said that under a federal law that takes effect in June, students must be informed of their right to go or not to go to law enforcement. A mandatory reporting requirement might create a conflict.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, summed it up at a meeting last week this way: “Golly, this is a real quagmire.”