State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, is the sponsor of House Bill 51, commonly referred to as the campus rape bill. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia campus rape bill appears dead for the year, sponsor says

Weary after hours of often emotional discussion, a Senate committee voted Thursday to kill for this year what had come to be known as the “campus rape bill.”

“This is truly a complicated matter,” said state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think the proper thing to do at this point … I’d like to table this bill.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, agreed. “I sense some unreadiness in the room,” he said. “I have the same unreadiness.”

With only three legislative days left in the 2017 session, the committee voted unanimously to hold on to House Bill 51, bringing tears of happiness to the eyes of sexual assault victims and their advocates who had been aggressively fighting the bill since state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, introduced it in January.

Opponents think it will have a chilling effect on victims.

Before the vote, the Senate committee spent more than an hour Thursday discussing a revised bill that was crafted to protect the due process rights of college students whom school administrators are investigating in response to sexual assault allegations.

Ehrhart said after the vote that he had asked members of the committee to hold the bill because of issues raised by public and private colleges.

“This is too serious an issue” to push it, Ehrhart said. “It’s not dead by any stretch of the imagination. The issue hasn’t gone away.”

Advocates who had fought the bill spilled out of the meeting to share hugs and tears.

“This was needed,” said law student Grace Starling, one of the more vocal opponents. “The Senate has shown a willingness to treat rape as a nonpartisan issue.”

Ehrhart said he filed the bill because efforts by Georgia colleges and universities to adhere to federal law — Title IX — have destroyed college careers and prospects for professional lives of young men falsely accused of sexual assault.

“Our system is littered with destroyed lives of Georgia citizens,” Ehrhart told the committee. “I can point to about 30 cases of young men falsely accused and their lives turned upside down.”

He proposed the bill even though just last summer the Board of Regents had adopted statewide guidelines for investigating allegations of sexual assault on college campuses.

The draft of the revised campus rape bill  that the Senate committee was considering Thursday contains the often-criticized requirement that schools tell police when there has been a sexual assault, but that duty is now assigned to a “designated administrator” charged with determining whether an allegation is “credible” and possibly criminal. Law enforcement officials who have spoken about the bill have complained there can be little, if any, criminal investigation of a sexual assault report if the victim is not identified.

The changes that were discussed included:

  • Specifying that any college official investigating sexual misconduct be trained. Their efforts to gather information cannot interfere with a criminal probe or damage evidence police may need.
  • Defining sexual assault and what interim measures can be taken to separate a victim and attacker while a case is pending.
  • Mandating that someone other than the official who investigated sexual misconduct allegations decide whether college conduct codes were violated and what the punishment would be. The hearing officer must be a retired judge or a “fair and impartial trained administrator” — not someone affiliated with an advocacy group .

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X