Proposed HB 51 would be taking step backwards in fight against sexual violence

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Abby Hissong

The lawn at University of Virginia.

Abby Hissong, Editor-in-Chief

Baylor University. University of Virginia. Stanford University. While all of these colleges are known for their academics, they are also known for something much more serious; their tainted reputations. Within the past couple years, these schools have been under immense fire for the rape scandals that have happened on their campuses. As awareness grows regarding campus rapes, universities have taken various stances on how to handle these cases. Seeking a solution, the state of Georgia has proposed a bill that could change how colleges handle sexual assault cases all together.

The proposed law, called HB 51, states that “no investigation … shall be undertaken by the postsecondary institution unless such investigation is done by a campus law enforcement agency staffed by law enforcement officers who are certified peace officers by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.”

At first, this may sound reasonable, even better, than the current legislation in place that allows students to choose whether they want to report sexual misconduct to law enforcement or their school or both. What this legislation really does, however, is remove the ability of universities to exercise their own systems of due process. By placing investigations solely in the hands of the legal system, which notoriously mishandle cases of rape and sexual assault, these colleges would be failing the students they’re supposed to be protecting. In addition, in the time it takes for criminal justice cases to see a ruling, the accused could attack other students, as rapists are often repeated offenders. The processes already in place at many colleges — the very ones that this law proposes to eliminate — more effectively remove these multiple offenders.

HB 51’s Republican sponsor, Earl Ehrhart, defends the bill stating that “[schools] should be in the business of educating, not investigating sexual assaults.”

What Ehrhart fails to understand that college and university disciplinary processes are not intended to replace judicial processes. Participating in a school investigation does not prevent a student from additionally turning to law enforcement. Rather, school investigations serve the purpose of making schools safer for students. By accepting this law, we would be increasing the costs, emotional and fiscal, of rape and sexual assault’s aftermath. Survivors often experience anxiety, depression, and even post traumatic stress disorder. They will often miss classes, take time off for mental health supp

ort, and sometimes even fail to graduate on time. This creates enormous costs for students, schools, and the state.

The bill would also require university employees and staff to report possible felonies such as sexual assault. The bill excludes conversations with lawyers and several types of licensed mental health care professionals. It does not include conversations with professors, coaches, resident advisers or deans. Nor does the exclusion cover the unlicensed counselors, therapists and volunteers who often staff student centers and health clinics, the first places students tend to go to in crisis. Reporting is already difficult enough because of the tangled web of emotions that sexual assault survivors face, so why would we aim to make it any harder on these victims? As it’s written now, HB 51 would require survivors, in a moment of extreme crisis, to seek out a person covered by the privileged communication exclusion to ensure that the confidante would not be required to report. Limiting who sexual assault survivors are able to talk to in their time of need would have the opposite effect of what the bill seeks, as many students would simply chose to not report their case at all.

This proposed legislation should trouble both conservatives and liberal. Not only would it would undermine private institutions’ abilities to discipline their students, but more importantly, it would violate the civil rights of those most affected by sexual violence. The investigative processes that Ehrhart seeks to eliminate protect college students’ civil rights, lessen the costs of rape and sexual assault, and protect students. If Georgia chooses to enforce this bill, they would be taking a step backwards in the fight against sexual violence on college campuses.

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