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Opinion: Senate listened to student survivors of sexual assault; House mocked them.


UPDATE Tuesday: Former House Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart is not one to back down from a fight. The Senate rebuff of his campus rape legislation did not stop the longtime Cobb lawmaker. Today, the House Rules Committee gutted SB 71, originally a bankruptcy bill, and added Rep. Earl Ehrhart’s HB 51, the campus assault bill tabled by the Senate Judiciary Thursday.

Original blog:

Sexual assault survivor and law student Grace Starling helped lead the fight against state Rep. Earl Ehrhart's campus rape bill, which passed the House but failed to advance in a wary Senate.

Starling says she learned a lot about politics and power in the process and shares those lessons in a guest column today.

Ehrhart said the bill was necessary because efforts by Georgia colleges and universities to adhere to federal law have upended the college careers and prospects of young men falsely accused of sexual assault. “Our system is littered with destroyed lives of Georgia citizens,” Ehrhart told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. “I can point to about 30 cases of young men falsely accused and their lives turned upside down.”

Here is an excellent AJC investigation that found nine of Georgia’s largest universities logged 152 allegations of rapes and sodomies since 2010, based on law enforcement documents. Not one resulted in criminal prosecution for a complex series of reasons. In the vast majority, the victim either didn’t come forward to authorities or chose not to pursue charges.

Starling and other survivors argued that Ehrhart's bill would lead to fewer victims coming forward.

By Grace Starling

"Spoiled child who doesn't know how to behave"

"Snowflake who needs a safe space"

"Could you grow up?"

“Trigger somewhere else”

“Utilizing a victim’s status”

Based on these comments said about me or to me, you might assume I was on a playground and not in the Georgia Capitol. You'd be wrong. According to state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, and supporters of his ill-conceived campus rape bill, I am a spoiled child who doesn't know how to behave.

Actually, I'm a 23-year-old law student and sexual assault survivor who doesn't scare easy and stands up to bullies, including Ehrhart.

Since Jan. 26, I've been at the Capitol almost every day fighting against his legislation, which would make it more difficult for rape victims to come forward. I've spent a significant amount of time working with the House and Senate, and, let me tell you, the way students and survivors were treated by the two chambers could not have been more stark.

HB 51 is a symptom of Ehrhart’s unchecked power as a longstanding House leader and former chair of the Rules Committee. Ehrhart expected the majority of House members to fall in line with what he wanted, hardly even vetting his legislation, and that's what they did. Even after thousands upon thousands of Georgians called, wrote letters, and signed a petition in opposition, the bill passed on March 1 in a 115-55 vote.

While I condemn the House’s treatment of rape survivors, I want to thank those members who fought for and with students against this bill. To the 55 House members who voted "no" and the six who spoke against this bill on March 1, Georgia students are forever grateful for your service and your leadership.

I implore the House members who endorsed this dangerous legislation to consider the road you are walking now. You have already prioritized status of a sponsor over substance of a policy and party lines over your constituents’ concerns. As Ehrhart attempts in the final days of the session to resurrect HB 51 by attaching it to another bill, think deeply about what your actions say to your voters and their families. (See news story where Ehrhart discusses reviving his bill this week.)

Because to this voter, it sounds like you don’t want to stand up to bullying in your own House.

Thankfully, the Georgia Senate vigorously vetted HB 51, something the House decided was not worth its sincere consideration. All the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee invited me into their offices and listened to my concerns. They asked meaningful questions about the background and history of Title IX, the consequences of the legislation, and what they could do to help right the wrongs of the House.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone renewed my faith in the political process. I found a dedicated elected leader who wanted to make this right for all parties involved. He wanted to create rights and protections for both victim and accused. He was gracious and kind and gave this issue the time it deserved, as did his entire office and committee. To those individuals, Georgia students are grateful for your dedication and hard work.

On Thursday, Stone's Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to table the bill as it was too important to rush. The senators treated students and assault survivors with respect, not with the derision we faced in the House.

After a recent hearing, Ehrhart told an advocate I was “a spoiled child who doesn’t know how to behave.” To that I say, “consider the source” as Ehrhart advised students at a recorded event at Emory University on March 22, the night before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote, when he was asked about the issue of his name-calling.

The next day, after the Senate tabled HB 51, I approached Ehrhart and put out my hand. He looked at me and then at my hand, but he did not move. I asked to shake hands. He took my hand, squeezed it, and said, “Could you grow up?” Then, he walked away in anger, and I laughed to myself because I realized age does not equate to maturity, even with elected officials.

That same day, a supporter of Ehrhart and his bill wrote some crude and callous comments about me as a rape victim on social media. He said, “Grace is a prima donna. Could be a pretty little liar too. She might be a false accuser.” This is the kind of person Ehrhart and House Republicans have fighting for their bill.

Rape is not a partisan issue, and, if Georgia House members choose to treat it as such, they will be sadly dismayed in November 2018.

Because many of us who spoke out against HB 51 are young doesn't mean we don’t deserve the respect and time lawmakers give to other constituents. Don’t attempt to discredit us or demean our experiences by calling us snowflakes, spoiled children, infantile pampered children, or any other degrading derivative. Do not tell us to “grow up” after your bill gets tabled. And when someone sticks their hand out, don't make them ask to shake your hand. That’s rude.

And, finally, never underestimate a coalition of rape survivors and allies. We’ve endured more than you can imagine, and we won’t ever stop fighting for one another.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this snowflake needs to “grow up,” graduate law school, find a seat, and use it to stand up for Georgia citizens.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.