Following a harrowing Rolling Stone story on the gang rape of a University of Virginia student, several state lawmakers are proposing new legislation that would require university officials to notify the police when they receive a report of sexual violence against students -- or potentially face prosecution themselves.
The bills are a response to the Rolling Stone report, which describes the university failing to respond appropriately to the rape. There are several competing legislative proposals, but the basic idea has broad support among lawmakers of both parties. The school's president, Teresa Sullivan, has also been talking with police about taking some discretion away from victims of rape who might not want law enforcement to investigate.
Currently, the school's "emphasis is on giving choices to the survivors and letting them understand and choose their course of action," Sullivan said Monday. But she added that while some victims prefer not to involve police, law enforcement must be able to work quickly to collect evidence. "The very experience of the trauma can interfere with decision-making," she said.
At the University of Virginia, the key problem appears to have been unresponsive school officials -- not unresponsive cops. The victims described in the Rolling Stone account could have sought the police's help if they wanted it, but they did not. Now, many are saying that police should be involved in every alleged case of sexual violence.
But some advocates for victims suggest that mandatory reporting to police could have unintended consequences -- while ignoring the real issues of college administrators not doing enough to stop sexual assault. It could make campuses even more dangerous, they say, by discouraging students from reporting sexual assault and preventing administrators from getting the information they need to keep students safe.
Some victims of rape say they would not have notified their university if they school officials had been required to report the incident to police. Victims, some say, might not want the attention and scrutiny that comes from a criminal investigation. Others may be uncomfortable with the idea of repeatedly describing in detail what happened to them to law enforcement officers.
Rape is "a horribly traumatic experience" that victims are reluctant to discuss, especially with law enforcement, said Nancy Cantalupo, a researcher at the Georgetown Law Center and specialist in victims' rights law. "It's just a different kind of calculus for a victim to talk to someone to anyone, about the violence."
Some experts on sexual violence say there are many reasons that an estimated 80 percent of rape victims never take their concerns to the police. Victims of rape often feel intense shame, and so want as few people as possible to know about what happened. Victims of sexual assault may not be familiar with the details of the law and might not trust law enforcement to respect their wishes.
"I have concerns about mandating referrals to law enforcement," said Alison Kiss, director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus. "It could lead to less reporting."
Such proposals represent a "misplaced faith in the criminal law that is not shared by many survivors of sexual violence," Alexandra Brodsky, a writer and activist, wrote earlier this year. "The first warning sign: Students’ insistence that tying the school system to the police would discourage survivors from reporting."
Brodsky writes that requiring every alleged rape to be reported to police would distract from universities' own legal responsibility to protect women on campus.
Instead of a criminal investigation, victims of sexual violence might do better with the kind of help that a school can provide without help from the police, advocates say. They might need counseling and time off from school. If they are in classes with alleged perpetrators, then the school can shuffle their schedules to separate them. In some cases, suspension or expulsion will be the only sure way of keeping other students safe. Legally, schools don't need the same kind of proof to expel someone as a jury does to convict.
Cantalupo suggests that lawmakers in Richmond looking for a way to reduce sexual violence on campus consider requiring that universities administer mandatory, anonymous surveys on sexual violence and release the results publicly. The results would go a long way toward clarifying the extent of the problem and would embarrass administrators into finding ways of solving it.
Supporters of the legislation say it is still important for police to intervene--and quickly. A typical rapist commits rape more than once.
Virginia Del. Rob Bell, a Republican who represents Charlottesville and a sponsor of one bill, has said that police would not have to pursue an investigation after being notified, but that they need to collect evidence right away. A victim and a prosecutor could make a decision later about whether to bring criminal charges.
Writing for Bloomberg about Jackie, the female student in the Rolling Stone story, Megan McArdle calls for police to investigate immediately "even if Jackie (the victim) is reluctant to assist."
The goal of Virginia officials, helping police to collect evidence, is different from that of a California law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year that allows victims of sexual assault to remain anonymous even as their cases are submitted to the police.
Apprehending, prosecuting and jailing students who commit rape could be one way of reducing violence on campus. The data, however, show that law enforcement hasn't been particularly effective at prosecuting cases -- one reason some victims rights groups are skeptical of a law compelling police involvement.
A recent analysis by the Orlando Sentinel found that although 55 rapes were reported to campus police at Florida's public universities in 2012 and 2013, arrests were made in only five cases, none of which led to a conviction.
The odds for successful prosecutions are even lower. Some experts argue that prosecutors and police officers tend not to believe the victims of rape and don't pursue these cases as vigorously they otherwise would.
Each school was required to set up a straightforward process for dealing with complaints about sexual assault that operates alongside the formal criminal-justice system. At Occidental College, for example, the number of reports increased from 11 in 2012 to 64 in 2013. The popularity of this approach with students suggests many were nervous about going to the police, but came forward when they had another option.