Local advocates for sexual assault victims are voicing concerns over a Georgia General Assembly bill passing the House that would change disciplinary procedures on college campuses regarding sexual assault.
House Bill 51, passed in the Georgia House of Representatives Wednesday, would require college officials to inform law enforcement when notified of an assault.
Jeanne Buffington of Rape Response, a Gainesville-based organization supporting victims of sexual assault, said she feels the bill will make sexual assault survivors less likely to come forward and report.
“I come from the role of an advocate who sees so many obstacles and so much re-victimization of people when they disclose or they go through the court system. I come from that vantage point, and I can understand why people choose not to disclose,” Buffington said, the organization’s executive director.
On college campuses, Buffington said, survivors need to be able to get the resources to heal and move forward.
“In my opinion, just because you don’t report to law enforcement, you shouldn’t be denied services if you’re an adult,” she said.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, has been a fierce critic of some Georgia schools’ disciplinary proceedings, arguing that the rights of students accused of sexual assault have been violated. He also filed a federal lawsuit last year with his wife challenging a “Dear Colleague Letter” issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2011 that laid out specific requirements for dealing with sexual violence under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
“(The Ehrharts) are concerned that in the current regulatory climate Mrs. Ehrhart’s son could, like any other male college student, be wrongly accused and found responsible under the directives imposed by the Dear Colleague Letter,” a portion of the lawsuit reads. “Accordingly, (the Ehrharts) are justifiably concerned that the money they have saved for college tuition and expenses could be lost and their son’s reputation and career prospects irreparably damaged.”
The guidance also says school investigations must proceed with or without law enforcement, since certain actions may qualify as violations of Title IX even if police can’t prove a crime was committed.
Ehrhart’s bill, though, would require that colleges notified of felony crimes, including sexual assault, inform police and let them decide whether to investigate or recommend criminal charges. It also would prevent schools from disciplining, suspending or expelling a student for actions that are under criminal investigation without a hearing “affording due process protections.” The bill doesn’t define those protections.
Buffington said the process on college campuses is neither “haphazard” nor “simple.” In her experience, Buffington said the victim and the accused are both heard.
“(Campus officials) are going to go through the steps that are required to do the process effectively,” she said.
Republican Rep. Regina Quick of Athens, home to the University of Georgia campus, co-sponsored the bill and argued that it strikes a balance between accuser and accused.
“There are stories on both sides of this issue that will make you weep,” Quick told members. Then, quoting Aristotle, she added, “The law is reason free from passion.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.