This week, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed new legislation addressing sexual assault on college campuses in Virginia. The legislation carries with it perhaps a mixed bag of implications for campus sexual assault reporting and investigation, as well as for the victims most deeply affected by these experiences.
How these laws will affect how colleges handle sexual assault
One of the two bills, passed unanimously by Virginia lawmakers, focuses on how higher education institutions handle sexual violence cases and support victims. It requires employees who obtain information about an alleged act of sexual violence to report it to the school’s Title IX coordinator, who must then bring the information to a review committee.
If the committee members decide that the information poses a threat to the victim’s health or safety, or to public safety, they can then report it—including personally identifiable information—to law enforcement. When felony sexual assault cases are brought before the committee, its members have to consult with the local prosecuting attorney.
The bill also seeks to increase campus collaboration with local sexual assault crisis centers and other victim support services.
The second bill focuses on campus police, requiring that either they or their local law enforcement partners notify the local attorney for the Commonwealth within 48 hours of beginning a sexual assault investigation.
The problem with mandatory reporting
Several states have considered measures requiring mandatory reporting to law enforcement if personnel at institutions of higher education learn of sexual assaults on campus or related to campus activities. This has been widely criticized by student and victim advocacy groups because of worries about victim privacy and concerns that this could actually discourage victims from talking to or seeking help from someone on campus they trust.
Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that only about one-third of sexual assaults were reported to police in 2010. Of even further concern is that these data also show that students were less likely to report assaults to the police than nonstudents—only 20 percent of student victims reported their assaults between 1995 and 2013 compared with 33 percent of nonstudent victims. Just over one-quarter of these victims said they didn’t report the assault because it was a private matter and 20 percent said they didn’t report due to fear of reprisal.
Additionally, direct reporting to law enforcement, regardless of the victim’s interest in doing so, flies in the face of Violence Against Women Act provisions that allow for victims to receive services without being required to report their assault to police. The Virginia bill may get around this by requiring employees to report to their Title IX coordinators. However, if the coordinators and the required review panel proceed with a police report, does this conflict with the federal legislation?
Regardless of law enforcement involvement, some in higher education still worry that provisions requiring reports to administration will jeopardize relationships between faculty and students, and impair the trust students might have in the educators they may turn to for help.
What the new legislation gets right
On the other hand, stronger provisions to force collaboration among community partners, such as local rape crisis center experts and law enforcement and prosecutors, could have positive effects for victims. Evidence suggests that sexual assault response teams, consisting of multidisciplinary members from law enforcement, prosecutors, medical forensic examiners, and victim advocates, lead to victim-focused practices and improved healthcare for the victim, and aid in holding offenders accountable through better forensic evidence collection and increased prosecutions.
Further, we know from interviews we conducted with 1,500 women that when victims perceive community agencies to be working together to assist them and their cases, there is an increase in the likelihood of arrests in the case and in women’s beliefs that law enforcement and prosecution agencies were effective. However, to date, only about 25 percent of four-year institutions report using a team approach that involves local prosecution and just over 50 percent report working with victim advocates.
While the new laws coming out of Virginia could have mixed implications for sexual assault victims, there are aspects of the legislation that should be applauded: practices that increase victim safety, services that restore their well-being, and efforts to increase agencies’ capacity to hold offenders accountable are certainly steps in the right direction.