Governor’s task force on sexual assault releases findings

Matt Leonard
Tmargo Maier
Capital News Service

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe implemented the task force last September to combat sexual assault. The task force included a response, law enforcement and prevention committee, who each shared their findings with Attorney General Mark Herring. Photo courtesty of Capital News Service

Virginia should create a database of college students who are expelled for committing sexual assaults, and every college and university in the commonwealth should establish a sexual assault response team, a task force headed by Attorney General Mark Herring said Wednesday.

Those are among the key recommendations to emerge from the group at its final meeting before sending its findings to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The Governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence was divided into subcommittees covering sexual assault response, law enforcement and prevention. The recommendations from the subcommittees complemented one another, said Ellen Plummer, who chaired the response subcommittee.

“We’re all basically saying the same thing,” said Plummer, an assistant provost at Virginia Tech, “and it’s very satisfying.”

At the meeting, each subcommittee reported its findings and recommendations.

Response Subcommittee

This subcommittee was responsible for what its name implies — how a university, police agency or counselor should respond to students who report acts of sexual violence.

The subcommittee recommended the creation of a database of students who have been expelled from college in connection with a sexual assault. Plummer noted that this is legal under federal law.

The subcommittee also suggested that the state collect data on the number of staff members needed to properly deal with a sexual assault. This would be a set number of police, counselors or advocates per student, similar to the commonwealth’s standards for instruction.

“What we’re looking for is the optimal staffing requirements,” Plummer said.

Technology such as smartphone apps and online portals could make it easier to report sexual assaults, the subcommittee found.

“We’re trying to remove obstacles to report,” Plummer said.

After an incident is reported, the response must improve, she added. The subcommittee’s major recommendations in this area concerned training staff and faculty members on how to deal with trauma victims. The panel also suggested formal agreements among universities, community law enforcement agencies and sexual assault crisis centers.

Law Enforcement Subcommittee

This subcommittee, chaired by John A. Venuti, chief of police at Virginia Commonwealth University, was tasked with determining how police departments and other officials investigate and enforce sexual assault charges in a complicated climate where victims are often hesitant to act. All the while, they must keep in mind laws like the Clery Act, which governs crime reporting at colleges and universities, and Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education.

The subcommittee’s first recommendation is to amend Virginia code to require all public and private institutions of higher education to have a Sexual Assault Response Team. (SARTs already exist at some schools in Virginia, but not all.) SARTs would include Title IX officers, campus police, student affairs, local law enforcement representatives, mental health professionals and other officials.

The teams would focus on the “immediate response to sexual assault including collection of evidence, and providing support and options to victims.”

The subcommittee also suggested changing the current law to make police responsible for the recovery, transport and storage of evidence in campus sexual assault cases. Once collected, there should be a requirement for how long evidence is kept — there is no statute of limitations for rape.

“A victim may choose years later to pursue a criminal prosecution,” said subcommittee member Abby Raphael, who was presenting in the absence of Venuti.

Raphael said that when a student reports a sexual assault, it leads to an increase in reports as other students come forward. The subcommittee suggested that colleges expand their use of alerts and other public awareness tools regarding sexual assaults.

Prevention Subcommittee

This subcommittee focused on systems to help stop sexual assaults from occurring.

Emily Renda, the subcommittee’s chair and program coordinator for student affairs at the University of Virginia, said her group’s recommendations would create a transparent campus environment with an emphasis on reporting sexual assault. The recommendations covered two themes: gathering data and education.

The data would be gathered through a campus climate survey, which was originally suggested in a 2014 White House report about sexual assaults titled “Not Alone.”

The Justice Department teamed up with Rutgers University to refine the survey asking students their opinions about their campus environments and sexual assaults. Some Virginia schools like VCU and the University of Richmond have conducted similar surveys, but the results have not been released.

The prevention subcommittee also recommended:

Anti-bullying education in kindergarten through high school. This would teach students “healthy relationship and positive behavioral interactions” before reaching college.

Statewide prevention teams that would hold annual summits and provide guidelines for prevention

On-campus groups to coordinate prevention instruction.

After the task force

McAuliffe created the task force last September. Both the response subcommittees and law enforcement subcommittees suggested the formation of an advisory committee that would act as a liaison between the task force and the state government. The advisory committee would consult institutions and provide guidelines for priorities.

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