New bill aims to hand over sexual assault investigations to law enforcement

A new Georgia bill aims to keep colleges out of sexual assault investigations on their campuses.

House Bill 51 (HB 51), sponsored by state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, requires college officials to hand over all information when a sexual assault complaint has been filed to local law enforcement.

According to HB 51, “no investigation of such matter shall be undertaken by the postsecondary [university] 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 Standards and Training Council.”

The bill would disallow universities from punishing students until they are found guilty in criminal court, but universities would be allowed to suspend them during law enforcement’s investigation.

“The postsecondary institution shall not pursue any financial disciplinary action against any student alleged to have committed a crime which would be a felony under the laws of this state until and unless such student is found guilty (…).”

Atlanta resident, Jason Rossiter, contacted The Signal with concerns after speaking with his representative about the bill.

“It seemed like no one was talking about it. If you’re denying a university to do any of their investigation, you’re denying them any right of having their own court of conduct,” he said.

Law Enforcement procedures

According to a 2016 study by the Justice Department, only 7 percent of sexual assault victims report it to their university, and only 4 percent report it to law enforcement.

And as Susan Schuenemann, executive director of the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center had told The Signal last spring, the reason behind that is because victims choose to keep the situation secretive to avoid trauma. But law enforcement investigations, which this bill will push for, are anything but secretive.

Ehrhart told 11Alive, the changes the switch to law enforcement only makes sense, as campus faculty aren’t able to handle such cases.

“They’re not trained, they don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the money,” he said. “It belongs with the civil authorities.”

But only 3 to 18 percent of cases reported to law enforcement lead to a conviction, according to research funded by the Justice Department. University investigations are legally required to be kept secretive, under the Title IX law, a law which the new Georgia bill directly goes against.

Title IX is a federal law which bans discrimination based on gender, and has pushed for stronger sexual assault investigation procedures throughout the Obama administration.

On April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter which provided guidance on how Title IX policies should be enforced in public institutions pertaining to sexual harassment and assault. Once a complaint is filed to the school, the federal guidance requires the institution to conduct an investigation and take steps to resolve the issue. The letter states that even though law enforcement may get involved in institutions’ sexual assault investigations, a law enforcement investigation “does not relieve the school of its independent Title IX obligation to investigate (…).”

But in an interview with BuzzFeed, Ehrhart hinted the policy won’t stand for long in the Trump administration. He said he didn’t think the policy will remain once Trump swears in the office.

“I’ve had preliminary discussions,” he told the outlet. “I’m hoping to be in DC at the end of the month at the end of the month to meet with the department.”

But university investigations under Title IX also guarantee complete anonymity, if requested, by and for both the accused and accuser. A policy which law enforcement investigations do not guarantee.

But the Title IX anonymity policy calls for a bunch of loopholes in the system.

Title IX loopholes

Marjorie Kirk, the editor-in-chief of The Kentucky, was sued by the University of Kentucky (UK) after filing an Open Records Request (ORR) for the documents of a sexual assault investigations which Kirk said highlights one of the major loopholes in the Title IX system.

Two students at the University of Kentucky filed complaints against an advisor who they said sexually harassed them, but before the school’s first official scheduled hearing, the advisor resigned, and so the hearing never took place.

Kirk filed Freedom of Information Acts in March 2016, to receive all files related to the investigation, but was taken to court by the university, which denied giving up all documents because of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which aims to protect the privacy of student records.

Kirk said besides identified documents, the paper is fighting for public records, trying to set a precedent for the types of documents protected under FERPA.

“Some universities in Kentucky handed over the documents that UK said are under FERPA,” she said

Kirk explained that while Title IX cannot guarantee anonymity for the accused, they are forced to resign if found responsible – without the case hurting their future employment. Kirk told The Signal that under UK’s resignation process, the supervisor of the staff member who’s accused can, if they decide, hide the accusation from their resignation report, even if the faculty member has been found guilty.

Even though the professor wasn’t kept anonymous from the paper, his record will show no record of the four sexual assault counts he was accused of.

But this wasn’t the only time anonymity got in the way of justice. According to 11Alive, a Kennesaw State University (KSU) student filed a complaint of sexual assault, but was left in the dark throughout the entire 6-month investigation.

But besides being secretive, institution investigations have been criticized for lacking staff that is trained, which is also a requirement under the Title IX guidance.

According to Title IX, “schools need to ensure that their employees are trained so that they know to report harassment to appropriate school officials, and so that employees with the authority to address harassment know how to respond properly.”

Georgia State recently opened up a office of Student Victim Assistance in the Counseling Center, which among other cases, deals with sexual assault. Jennifer Bodnar, the office senior coordinator, attended the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Jan. 19 and brought up the disclosure policies followed by the office.

Unlike other departments of the university, the Student Victim Assistance office is not mandated by law, according to Bodnar, to report sexual assault cases once a student tells her about their experience.

“If students ask to go to the hospital, get a forensic exam, I’m the person that will go with them, and take them there,” Bodnar said. But the details will not be reported to anyone but herself.

In fact, students that go into the Student Victim Assistance office can sign in under a fake name, which according to Bodnar’s SGA presentation, is to ensure full disclosure and that all information that the student provides stay private. The only person who has access to the statistics and information of the cases that students bring in her office, is Bodnar.

According to The Huffington Post, there’s another major factor that allows colleges to escape the public eye when they’re under federal investigation for their sexual assault handlings.

If they are being investigated for “allegedly mishandling harassment cases”, but not assault, the universities don’t appear on the lists given to reporters by the Education Department.

According to the article, one of the institutions that has “escaped public scrutiny” because of this difference has been Georgia State.