A state senate bill requiring mandatory reporting of campus sexual assault incidents to police has lawmakers wrangling between victim confidentiality rights and increasing transparency during university Title IX investigations.
The Virginia Senate Committee on Education and Health proposed a bill on Jan. 26 that would require state-employed faculty, administrators and full-time staff to immediately report to police any information of a sexual assault on campus. Failure to do so within 24 hours would result in a Class 1 misdemeanor offense.
Students affiliated with Virginia 21, a non-partisan political advocacy group, visited the Virginia General Assembly last Wednesday to express to legislators their concerns with the reporting policy proposed by the new bill.
“The problem often is survivors are not ready to trigger a police report when they first contact the person they trust,” said Alexis Rodgers, communications director for VA 21 and a VCU public relations alumna.
Rodgers said a victim’s ability to confide in trusted faculty or staff can be vital in securing a comfortable learning environment for that student. She added that current Title IX proceedings ensure that a sexual assault victim does not have to share spaces with their accused assailant after filing a complaint.
“What we’re hearing from survivors is that they would just stop coming forward, that if they had known it would trigger a police report there was no way they would have talked to that first professor,” Rodgers said.
In contrast, the idea driving a mandatory reporting policy is the hope that law-enforcement can act expeditiously in light of a victim confiding in someone they trust.
Christopher Lore, a legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Black who is a chief patron of the proposed sexual assault bill, said that concerns expressed by opponents of mandatory reporting are not being ignored within the scope of the proposed legislation.
“The goal of the bill is to ensure that the administration of the university has zero incentive to cover it up, sweep it aside or belittle it,” Lore said.
Lore added that a subsection is included which details a list of people who remain confidential and are not bound by the mandated reporting.
“We’re all for making sure reporting happens, but we don’t want to discourage people from coming forward if they have been sexually assaulted. We want them to feel that they have a safe environment to come to and talk,” he added.
Individuals who are exempt from reporting to police would include a victim’s attorney, accredited practitioners of any religious organization or denomination, a professional mental health counselor working at the university or a crisis counselor for the institution.
VCU criminal justice professor Robyn McDougle said another noteworthy initiative is VCU Police Chief John Venuti’s efforts to maintain a victim-centered approach during the reporting process.
“Police officers aren’t what we thought they were 40 years ago, when they’re coming in running over victims and making them feel re-victimized,” McDougle said. “They’ve all received really good training on victim-centered interviewing and investigation. The criminal justice side is really taking the victims into consideration.”
Jason De La Cruz, a legislative assistant to Sen. Ryan McDougle and supporter of the legislation, said he thinks a combination of speaking to the right authorities and issuing preventive education would best benefit victims of sexual trauma.
“I feel there is a big safety factor that occurs when someone finally tells their story to somebody as well as a lot of fear that comes with that too,” De La Cruz said. “But if it’s never reported it can continue to fester — the (attacker) could be in the victim’s class, and now they’re not attending class. After that, it can just barrel roll.”
On the federal level, the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 was proposed Tuesday by U.S. senators Tim Kaine and Claire McCaskill to help prevent sexual assault, dating violence and domestic violence through education efforts at public secondary schools.
Kaine’s influence on this issue stems from a recent visit to the University of Virginia where he spoke to students and One Less, a group that advocates for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education concluded federal investigations on Title IX proceedings at VCU, U.Va., College of William and Mary, University of Richmond, James Madison University and Virginia Military Institute.