General Assembly considers mandatory police involvement in campus sexual assault

This story was originally published in the Feb. 9 issue of Fourth Estate.

The Virginia General Assembly is currently considering multiple bills that propose mandatory reporting of campus sexual assaults to a law enforcement agency.

For example, SB712, introduced by Richard Black (R-Loudoun), requires campus and local police to report all sexual harassment to the Commonwealth’s Attorney within 24 hours. The summary of the bill states that it, “requires any administrator or professor employed by a public institution of higher education who through the course of his employment obtains information alleging that a criminal sexual assault has occurred to report within 24 hours such information to law enforcement. The bill provides that a person in violation of the reporting requirement is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

These proposed bills would be state laws and would be implemented under federal laws concerning sexual assault that are already in place, such as Title IX and the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires that universities release an annual security report every October that includes statistics on stalking, intimidation, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and hate crimes.

Title IX applies to students regardless of their gender or sexuality, and requires Mason to be proactive in ensuring that campus is safe from forms of sexual violence.

Rose Pascarell, vice president of University Life, began her career working with female victims, and said that when it comes to reporting sexual assaults or harassment, privacy is a large factor.

“Privacy concerns are really, really, really significant in whether or not the victim chooses to come forward and make a report under Title IX,” Pascarell said. “If a report comes into a crisis counselor, into a WAVES office, that report and the person who files it remains completely confidential under Clery. A WAVES office is required to report a set of incidents that may have happened.”

The Clery Act and Title IX do not require a faculty or staff member that a student confides in to submit a report including their personal information, nor do the laws require a report to be made to the police or the Commonwealth’s Attorney. However, they do allow for victims to receive healthcare and other benefits from the university.

Junior Kellie White, president of the Feminist Student Organization, first heard about the new mandatory reporting bills over the summer while attending the annual National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.

“It’s a slippery slope to navigate,” White said. “With mandatory reporting in general, I think it’s something that you have to navigate carefully on behalf of both the accused and the victim. I think it’s important that the victims’ statement and the inherent truth of what they’re saying and their experiences be taken 100%. That is not to be undermined or undervalued.”

White agreed that steps need to be taken, and said that the organization was supportive of the national and state level movements to end sexual violence on college campuses, but stated “it’s an entirely other thing to actually consider what’s driving these forces, and what kind of social movements are needed to really dismantle rape culture and really address the entire problem behind rape instead of putting a band aid on it.”

Mandatory reporting was also a topic at the recent Mason Lobbies event, which occurred last month. Kyle Garvey, a Government and International Politics major and student advocate, said that they were informed about the topic during their training.

“One of the things they did talk about specifically legislation-wise was the bill, and how the student body and how the student government felt about it… most of the time we were lobbying against it,” Garvey said.

According to the Washington Post, Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), described the current method of handling sexual assault cases on college campuses as a process that protects institutions, not individuals. The Post also said there is bipartisan support for the bills regarding mandatory reporting. It will be voted on in next year’s session.

Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), has proposed a similar bill that would require campus or local police to inform the Commonwealth’s attorney within 48 hours of an investigation into a felony criminal sexual assault case on a college campus, according to the Washington Post. She was quoted as saying “This problem needs to be addressed across campus. Whether in a fraternity house, dorm room, parking garage or research facility, everyone on campus should feel safe and be protected.”

Pascarell disagreed. She referred back to her years helping victims of sexual violence, many of whom came to talk to the university’s services specifically for confidentiality reasons.

“We know there are a set of reasons why victims choose not to come forward, and one is they may not feel comfortable going to the police, and they may not feel that their confidentiality or that their privacy will be respected,” Pascarell said. “The idea that if I’m a student and I go to a faculty member who I trust, or I go to a staff member who I trust, I haven’t told my parents yet, I haven’t sought out services yet, but I know that I feel a connection to you and I say this is what happened to me, to then require that faculty member, that staff member to report to the police in 24 hours is a complete breach of confidentiality between a student and faculty or staff member.”

Mason provides several options for students who want to discuss a potentially harmful experience without worrying about privacy, such as Wellness, Alcohol and Violence Education Services.

Marianne Sprouse, director of WAVES, described it as “a good first stop for student who have been impacted d by sexual assault, stalking, dating violence or stalking. We’re considered a confidential resource, so we don’t have to report people’s identifying information. Students can come here, tell us about what happened to them, and we can tell them about all the options available to them.”

With mandatory reporting laws, this would change. University staff members who serve in a confidential capacity would be required to report sexual assault.

“The assembly has the right intentions,” Pascarell said. “They want to encourage reporting. This is what we all have in common – we, everybody, recognizes this is a significant issue. Everybody recognizes we need to do more than what we’re doing, and their approach is we’re just going to force people to report it to the police, which again, best of intentions, worst of legislation, because that’s not going to do it. If anything that will stop people from coming forward.”

Photo credit: ensign_beedrill. no changes made.