Campus rape bill moves to Senate

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, explains the campus rape bill, which the House passed 115-55.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, explains the campus rape bill, which the House passed 115-55.

The rights of sexual assault victims clashed with those of the accused as the Georgia House on Wednesday approved a bill that would change the way colleges handle allegations of rape on campus.

The measure ultimately passed 115-55 following nearly two hours of heated debate.

Both sides argued they had the best interest of Georgia's college students in mind — the victims as well as those accused of attacking them.

“This is about safe campuses for all of our students. This is about moms and dads. This is about their children, their education and careers. This is legislation that protects children on college campuses,” said bill sponsor Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs.

"It's a balance between the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused," he said, repeatedly telling colleagues that under the current system those accused of sexual assault don't enjoy due process rights when the allegations are handled by college and university officials who can suspend or expel them

Despite Ehrhart's assurances, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she still thought House Bill 51 - though different from its original version - would hurt victims assaulted on college campuses.

“This bill — although it started out as sledge hammer in the delicate process of the way we treat sexual assault victims — is still a hammer on victims’ rights,” Oliver said. “I’m glad we put down the sledge hammer. But I urge you not to proceed with a hammer into very difficult situations.”

She was joined by others.

“I refuse to take part in further victimization of (sexual assault survivors),” Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, said.

Rep. Scott Holcomb said the system already “all too often fails the victim.”

We can’t send a message to (rape) survivors that we don’t believe them. They hear that over and over and over again,” the Democrat from Atlanta said.

A group of sexual assault victims have been at the Capitol repeatedly to lobby against the measure.

The bill is a response to a letter the U.S. Department of Education sent in 2011 advising colleges and universities that Title IX in federal law required them to punish sexual assault or risk losing federal funds.

In the years that followed, Ehrhart said, he has heard from parents forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending their sons in administrative investigations sparked by reports of sexual assaults. He said some of these young men lost their college careers and saw their hopes of professional success evaporate even though they may not have faced criminal charges.

The proposed bill says colleges and universities must report to law enforcement any allegations of sexual assault but they cannot identify victims without their consent. It also says a victim cannot be forced to cooperate with law enforcement.

HB51 prohibits universities from conducting an investigation until law enforcement is finished because of the risk that college officials would destroy evidence needed for a possible criminal cases, Ehrhart said.

He said defense attorneys have told him “the best friend of a rapist is this Title IX administrator.

“The perpetrator isn’t put in jail. He’s free to do it again,” Ehrhart said.

“It’s a balance between the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused.”

Opposition to the bill focused on how much power a sexual assault victim retained.

Many victims of sexual assault never report the crime to law enforcement but instead have the school investigate and punish the offender. The option is appealing to victims because the burden of proof is lower and privacy protections greater. Schools may suspend or expel a student if they are found responsible. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that prosecutors rarely bring charges in campus rape cases.

Ehrhart said college officials can take interim steps like moving the victim to different classes or different dorms to put distance between their and her accused attacker until the matter is resolved. But preemptively moving the attacker was prohibited because it could be considered discipline.