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Student: Georgia lawmakers endanger victims of sexual assault with campus rape bill


Atlantan Zoë Taylor, a senior at Williams College, opposes a bill in the Georgia Legislature that limits the ability of Georgia’s public colleges to investigate and punish those accused of rape on campus. In the column below, she explains why.

Taylor is president of the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Network, a group that goes to middle and high schools and teaches students about consent. She was one of 28 students chosen to serve on the White House It’s On Us student advisory committee. It's On Us seeks to raise awareness and prevent sexual assaults. After graduation, Taylor plans to return to Atlanta to attend medical school and become an OB/GYN.

Despite testimony by sexual assault victims that House Bill 51 would endanger them and others, a House panel passed it unanimously last week.

In its reporting on HB 51, the AJC said:

Ehrhart said the legislation was prompted, in part, by an AJC report that identified problems in how Georgia schools have handled claims of sex assault. The AJC also reported, however, that prosecutors rarely pursue campus rape charges, The cases are often complicated by drinking and conflicting evidence of consent. Last year, for instance, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told the newspaper he was dropping charges in two high-profile campus rape cases at Georgia Tech and Morehouse College. His office investigated the cases for years.

With campus sexual assault reports on the increase, the Obama administration urged colleges to get tougher on sexual assault and threatened those schools that did not comply with the loss of billions of dollars in federal aid.

Here is Taylor's piece:

By Zoë Taylor

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, introduced legislation that would ban colleges from being able to punish students accused of sexual violence unless they were found guilty by a court of law.

The proposed law states, "no investigation … shall be undertaken by the postsecondary institution unless such investigation is done by a campus law enforcement agency staffed by law enforcement officers who are certified peace officers by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.”

At first, this may sound reasonable. What this legislation really does, however, is remove the ability of colleges and universities to exercise their own systems of due process. It would limit schools’ abilities to secure their own campuses, placing investigations in the hands of the legal system which notoriously mishandles cases of rape and sexual assault and fails in its due process.

Under the guise of liberty, this law would obstruct justice and safety for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Moreover, in the time it takes for criminal justice cases to see a ruling, the accused could attack other students, as most perpetrators of sexual violence commit multiple offences. The processes already in place at many colleges -- the very ones that this law proposes to eliminate -- more effectively remove these multiple offenders.

This proposed legislation also violates the federal Title IX gender equity law. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has mandated that schools pursue disciplinary action because failing to do so prevents certain students from receiving equal access to education.

When I worked for the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, we found rape and sexual assault disproportionately affect young women, trans students, people of color, and LGBTQ students. Ehrhart’s proposed law would curtail the abilities of schools to investigate rape cases and protect those specific group’s access to equal education.

Ehrhart says schools “cannot … create this special investigatory and adjudicatory system … I want to put it the hands of special victims units in the DA’s office.”

Ehrhart fails to understand that college and university disciplinary processes are not intended to replace judicial processes. Participating in a school investigation does not prevent a student from additionally turning to law enforcement. Rather, school investigations serve the purpose of making schools safer for students.

Moreover, this law would increase the costs, emotional and fiscal, of rape and sexual assault’s aftermath. Survivors often experience anxiety, depression, and even post traumatic stress disorder. They will often miss classes, take time off for mental health support, and sometimes fail to graduate on time. This creates enormous costs for students, schools, and our state.

The investigative processes that Ehrhart seeks to dismantle protect Georgia students’ civil rights, mitigate the costs of rape and sexual assault, and protect students.

This legislation should trouble people on both sides of the aisle. First, it would infringe on private institutions’ abilities to discipline their students. More importantly, however, it violates the civil rights of those most affected by sexual violence. Georgians know limiting some students’ access to equal education is wrong.

Every student has the right to equal education, and this can only be attained if students are free of the pressing fear of their body and civil rights being violated.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, become involved, or if this issue has affected you or a loved one, please reach out to Rape and Incest National Network (800-656-HOPE),  It’s On Us, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE), and/or the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault (404-815-5261).

 


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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.