Student survivor of sexual assault: Legislators dismiss and demean us. But we will be heard.

A survivor of sexual assault explains why she opposes House Bill 51 and why all Georgians should join her. In this video, law student Grace Starling shares her experience and her reasons for fighting HB 51.

Sponsored by state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs,  HB 51 would prohibit campuses from pursuing final disciplinary action against students unless they were convicted or pleads no contest to criminal charges. Schools also could not initiate their own investigation unless police had done so. Now, campuses have separate disciplinary procedures - operating under federal Title IX guidelines - that may expel or suspend a student found responsible for sexual assault even if the police are never involved.

Here is an excellent AJC investigation that found nine of Georgia’s largest universities logged 152 allegations of rapes and sodomies since 2010, according to law enforcement documents examined by the newspaper. Not one resulted in criminal prosecution for a complex series of reasons. In the vast majority, the victim either didn’t come forward to authorities or chose not to pursue charges.

Starling submitted both a video and the text of her statement in opposition of HB 51. There is also a petition and Facebook page to defeat the bill, which is being heard this afternoon in the House Appropriations Committee.

I am a survivor of sexual assault, but that is not all I am.

I am a daughter, and I remember what it was like to tell my parents that their child had been raped.

I am a student, and I remember what it was like just trying to pass my classes while participating in a criminal investigation.

I am also a Georgia citizen, and, as a citizen, I have chosen to channel my experience into publicly opposing House Bill 51, a bill aimed at destroying the majority of safeguards and protections for victims of sexual assault on our college campuses.

This bill would make Georgia universities dangerous for students who have been raped. By stripping universities of their ability to respond to sexual misconduct on college campuses – including disciplining offenders – students like myself would lose access to the services and supports that allow us to continue our education.

As of this writing, survivors and advocates have visited the Capitol every day to share our stories, concerns, and fears about this legislation with our representatives and senators. Our efforts have connected students, survivors, and advocates all over the state and amassed nearly 7,000 signatures in opposition. But despite countless attempts to participate in the legislative process in a constructive way, we have been ignored, patronized, dismissed, and insulted.

Public testimony against the bill has been limited, with hundreds of survivors denied the chance to speak. The few allowed to testify have been called back to the microphone to be chided, embarrassed, and ridiculed by members of the committee like Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, and Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

Most egregiously, when an audience unanimously voiced their objection to false testimony that 40 percent of women who report a sexual assault are lying, the bill’s sponsor and committee chairman, Rep. Earl Ehrhart chose to tell those citizens that if they were going to be triggered in this “macro-aggressive  environment,” they should “go trigger somewhere else.”

Just this week, Rep. Ehrhart labeled Georgia students “snowflakes” who “require puppies, Play-Doh, and safe spaces to deal with conflict.” He has threatened our universities’ funding if they oppose his bill, though he mercifully offered to supply us with pacifiers if we “are going to curl up into a fetal position when there is a competing idea.”

We do not fear competing ideas. We reject false pretenses and insincere platitudes in the place of compromise. We reject victim and citizen shaming, and we stand up to bullies.

The Capitol belongs to every Georgia citizen, and it is just as much ours as it is Earl Ehrhart’s. It should be a place for constituents to engage with elected officials who take our concerns seriously. Some of House Bill 51’s sponsors have treated us as if we must earn their time, attention, and respect. In reality, they have lost ours.

We are not your children, and we are not your inferiors. We are your constituents. We vote you in, and we can certainly vote you out. Mock us, bully us, and demean us, but we will continue to show up. We will continue to fight for each other and for every past, present, and future victim of sexual assault on our college campuses.

And rest assured we will make ourselves heard, whether you decide to support our voices or not.

For those of you asking what more can be done, call your representatives and your senators. Our voices are raised, and we ask that you raise yours too. Georgia must demand better from lawmakers. And we are all Georgia.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.