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Why Georgia’s campus rape bill could hurt sexual assault survivors

The bill is aimed at protecting accused rapists.

May 13, 2020, 2:21 pm*

IRL

 

Samantha Grasso

On Wednesday, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill that would forbid colleges from conducting their own investigations into sexual assault allegations and from punishing the accused without first reporting the assaults to law enforcement.

The motive behind House Bill 51 isn’t to protect the victims, though—it’s to ensure “due process” to better protect college students accused of rape and sexual assault. The bill’s sponsor, Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart, is particularly concerned with false accusations, which make up just 2 to 8 percent of all reported rape cases, according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.

“You may not care that a person’s life is destroyed by … lack of due process on a Georgia campus,” Ehrhart said during today’s debate before the bill’s vote. “But if it’s you, your son or your family on the receiving in… you’ll cry for that due process.”

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ehrhart said he proposed the bill after hearing stories from parents of college students where their academic lives and careers were ruined after allegedly false rape accusations. To prevent such situations, the bill proposes that Georgia colleges and universities mandatorily report sexual assault allegations to law enforcement.

While the bill doesn’t require universities to identify victims to law enforcement, nor that victims work with law enforcement, it forbids the university itself from conducting its own investigation until law enforcement has finished conducting its own.

This initially meant, according to CNN, forbidding schools from taking interim disciplinary measures under Title IX until an investigation is launched. These actions include changing the survivor’s or assailant’s dorms or classes and suspending the assailant,which are usually done to protect the survivor and other people on the campus.

An updated version of the bill now says these measures cannot be carried out until the accused student is “provided the opportunity of a hearing affording due process protections.” Democratic state Rep. Michele Henson expressed concern on Monday that universities would be reluctant to take such steps until the investigation was completed.

The bill also states that while a survivor doesn’t need to cooperate in a university’s sexual assault investigations or participate in disciplinary proceedings, “no disciplinary proceedings based upon an alleged sexual assault shall be conducted by a[n]…institution without the participation of the victim of such alleged sexual assault.” In other words, an alleged assailant can’t be disciplined without the survivor’s involvement.

Ultimately, the bill would replace federal guidelines mentioned in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter sent to college campuses under the Obama administration, but would not overpower federal law. Ehrhard and his wife sued the Department of Education in April over the federal guidelines, alleging that the policies have forced colleges to spend taxpayer funds pursuing sexual assault cases in order to prevent losing federal funding.

Critics, survivors included, challenged the bill during its hearing, and said it would further emotionally harm survivors and negatively influence sexual assault reporting. And it’s a reasonable concern—campus sexual assault reporting is already low, with only 20 percent of female college students age 18 to 24 reporting their assaults to law enforcement, according to RAINN.

Additionally, campus sexual assault cases handled by law enforcement in Georgia aren’t prosecuted, which helps contribute to the notion that filing a police report requires the survivor to go through an undue burden with very little benefit.

An analysis done by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014 showed that of the 152 rape and sodomy allegations logged across nine of the state’s largest universities since 2010, none were prosecuted. A separate investigation, on the other hand, showed that of the 43 sexual misconduct complaints logged across the state’s five largest universities over five years, half resulted in punishment of the accused.

“Victims know that the criminal justice system will put them through a lengthy and invasive process, for which many are not immediately prepared while dealing with the trauma of their assault,” survivor Jessica Caldas told the House committee during the hearing, according to CNN. “If they know they will be sent to the police, victims are less likely to report at all.”

Then there is the bill’s emphasis on protecting an alleged assailant, which in turn compromises the safety of a survivor and perpetuates the idea that survivors, particularly women, are not to be believed. Ehrhard’s argument is that he wants due process for the accused, but many would argue that accused assailants are already given the benefit of the doubt, pointing to a culture that shames women for besmirching the names of promising young men with the accusation of rape, believes women falsely accuse their attackers for fame or money, and rarely seriously prosecutes victims. It would seem rape survivors need further protections to ensure their cases are treated seriously, not the other way around.

 

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*First Published: Mar 1, 2017, 5:04 pm