Georgia moved a step closer to restricting the ability of its public colleges to independently investigate and punish rapes on campus on Monday as a House committee passed legislation aimed at providing better protections to those accused of sexual assault.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the so-called campus rape bill 35-10 as students opposing it looked on in a packed meeting room at the state Capitol. At least one national group representing sexual assault victims said the Georgia bill was the first of its kind to advance.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, said the measure would shield the rights of college students accused of sexual assault while also protecting the privacy of victims.
“House Bill 51 is about due process, safety on our campuses … and rights of the accused,” the Republican from Powder Springs said.
He was aggressively challenged about the potential for emotional damage to those who were attacked.
Ehrhart said several times that he proposed the legislation after hearing from parents whose sons' academic lives and career prospects were destroyed by what they say were false rape allegations. The parents, according to Ehrhart, said their sons were expelled from school without an adequate chance to defend themselves. Ehrhart said he was especially troubled that, at at least one university, the person who conducted investigations of sexual assault allegations also determined if the charges were true and then decided punishment.
The proposed bill says colleges and universities must report to law enforcement any allegations of sexual assault. But the bill also says college officials cannot identify the victim without her consent and she cannot be forced to cooperate with law enforcement.
It says the university cannot conduct its own investigation until law enforcement is finished because of the risk that a probe by college officials “would destroy evidence,” Ehrhart said.
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 AJC investigation found that prosecutors rarely bring charges in campus rape cases.
State Reps. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, and Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said Monday that Ehrhart’s bill would sacrifice the victims and spare the accused attacker.
“Does your bill take away from the victim the decision to report to law enforcement?” Oliver asked.
And what would happen, she asked, if the sexual assault was reported by someone other than the victim?
Henson said she was concerned colleges and universities would be reluctant to take interim steps — moving a victim or the accused attacker to different classes or dorms to separate them — until a criminal investigation was completed.
The bill says the proposed state law would supersede federal guidance letters or “other expressions of opinion” regarding policies by federal agencies, but it does not trump federal law.
The Obama administration had sent out a directive telling colleges that if they failed to punish sexual assault they could face the loss of federal funds.
Students, some of them victims, packed the meeting room on Monday. They twice broke into applause when legislators supported their position that they need more protections. Later , they snapped their fingers in disagreement when the bill prevailed.
“You’ve heard a lot about how this is taking away a victim’s rights,” Ehrhart said. “If the victims says no, the investigation does not go forward.”
Any investigation by a university must have the victim’s cooperation to move forward, he said.
Terri Poore, of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said she was unaware of any state bills similar to Georgia’s. If anything, she said, states were moving in the other direction to punish assailants more severely.
“There were a couple of federal bills filed that were similar to the Georgia bill last Congress, but they didn’t move at all,” Poore said.
Monday’s vote came with only a few days remaining for legislation to pass at least one chamber if it is to have a chance at final approval this session.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com