A bill moving in the Virginia legislature would require public universities to notify police within 24 hours after school officials learn of an alleged sexual assault on campus.
The Washington Post asked four universities for response to the bill, which won approval Monday from a state Senate subcommittee and appears to have support from the public, as nine out of 10 Virginia voters say sexual assaults on campus should be reported to police immediately. The proposal is likely to generate significant debate because it could affect not only how sexual assault allegations are investigated but also whether students decide to step forward to report an attack.
Here are e-mailed comments from three university officials:
University of Virginia spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn: “Many members of the U-Va. community are passionate about the challenge of strengthening safety on Grounds. Students, faculty, administrators and alumni are coming together to craft U-Va. solutions to sexual assault.
“There no doubt will be multiple bills introduced in the General Assembly on this topic. The university stands ready to serve as a resource to legislators who want to strengthen safety for our students. We look forward to reviewing all the proposed legislation and participating in the discussion.”
James Madison University spokesman Bill Wyatt: “The university is aware of the Senate subcommittee’s action on the campus sexual assault legislation. We are in the process of reviewing the proposal and will continue to monitor the debate as it moves forward. However, it is too soon to comment on how any one proposal may affect JMU. In the meantime, we will continue to work with other colleges and universities to share best practices and find ways to continue to keep our campuses safe.”
College of William and Mary spokesman Brian Whitson: “We do have concerns about the unintended consequences of this bill and others like it. 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. In addition, it would be incredibly difficult to pursue a criminal case when the witness does not wish to testify.
“But we also have confidence that members of the General Assembly will continue working on this and listen to those it will impact. We all realize the importance of this issue – and that we want a culture where victims feel comfortable coming forward to get the help they need, and at the same time universities are also doing everything they can from a safety perspective.
“As it stands now, our current practice and policies are fairly close to the process envisioned in the bill. Anyone who is considered a Campus Security Authority (CSA) is required to notify W&M Police if they become aware of any rape or other sex offense on university property. W&M adopted this crime reporting policy in fall 2011 in accordance with the Clery Act. Each dean, vice president and other university department head designates employees in his or her unit to serve as CSAs. In addition to anyone designated as CSAs, nearly all employees at William & Mary who learn about a sexual assault affecting a William & Mary student are required to report that information to the Title IX Coordinator and the Dean of Students. There are a few exceptions in the cases of specific individuals (counseling center, student health center, and a representative at The Haven, a space we opened this year as a safe place for survivors of sexual violence to go and seek support and resources) that have been designated so that they can receive confidential reports – and [the U.S. Education Department Office for Civil Rights] guidance allows for this exception.
“Police contact the Commonwealth’s Attorney on all cases where a rape is reported and the survivor wants to pursue charges. In cases where the survivor does not want to pursue charges, unless the survivor wishes to remain anonymous, police will still contact the Victim Witness Program within the CA office so that they can offer additional support services. While our police will consider every option to move forward, even without the survivor’s support, it would be a rare circumstance. If a survivor is reluctant to move forward but police believe that charges should still be considered, they will contact the Commonwealth’s Attorney and discuss the case. The CA would then decide whether to move forward with the case since it would also require compelling the survivor to testify in court.”
George Mason University’s vice president for university life, Rose B. Pascarell, spoke with The Post by telephone. She echoed some of the reservations expressed by Whitson, of William and Mary.
“We all want the same thing,” Pascarell said. “We want to figure out a way to encourage victims to feel comfortable enough to come forward and report.” She added: “I don’t think the current legislation is the solution.”
Pascarell said many victims have “major privacy concerns.” Fears that their privacy will be breached often cause them to stay silent. “We are trying in many ways to make sure students know there are options,” she said. “It’s really a delicate dance in those conversations, encouraging someone to come forward.”
Pascarell added: “One of the things that is most important is that the victim or survivor feels like they’re in control of the process.”
She said that if a crime was committed, the university’s intention is clear: “The goal is to get it to the police. But I’m not sure starting with that mandate is the way to go.”
The Post also spoke with Dana Bolger, a 2014 graduate of Amherst College, who is co-founder of a group called Know Your IX. The name of the group refers to the 1972 law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. The group’s stated mission is to empower students to stop sexual violence.
“This bill will absolutely have a deterrent effect on survivors reporting” sexual assaults, Bolger said of the Virginia measure. “Survivors tell me time and again that if their school had been required to hand their reports over to the police, they would never have come forward to anyone at all.”
Bolger said there are many reasons why a survivor would not necessarily want the police involved, including the fact that conviction rates in criminal cases are “staggeringly low.” She said she worried that a mandate to inform police could have the opposite of its intended effect by allowing a hostile environment toward the survivor on campus “to continue unabated.”