Campus sexual violence bill could change institutions' power in reporting

A Utah lawmaker’s bill could change Utah State University and other institutions’ ability in handling cases of alleged sexual violence.

HB 326, “Campus Sexual Violence Protection Act,” says victims of alleged sexual violence can request school officials not report the incident to law enforcement, but an institution can override that request if it determines “the information in the covered allegation creates an articulable and significant threat to campus safety at the institution.”

According to USU spokesman Tim Vitale, USU already has policy in place that “balances a student’s request for confidentiality while keeping in mind protecting the safety of the campus community,” using a review panel comprised of the Title IX Coordinator and trained faculty or staff members. But this USU policy only addresses the action the university would take within the institution’s own disciplinary processes.

“Both the Title IX Office and SAAVI notify victims of the option to report to police, and both offices will assist and have often assisted with this process if the student chooses to do so,” Vitale wrote in an email to The Herald Journal. “But it is the victim’s choice.”

Capt. Curtis Hooley, with the Logan City Police Department, acknowledged victims requesting not to report their cases to law enforcement is “not new.”

Hooley, who said he meets with USU’s Title IX office regularly, added, “I can’t think of too many situations (of accusations of sexual violence) in which it’s a danger for the entire campus.”

HB326 passed the House Judiciary Committee 8-2 late Friday.

The bill says institutions should consider a range of factors before going against the students’ request to not take a sexual violence case to law enforcement, including:

• The victim’s age.

• Whether the circumstances suggest the alleged perpetrator will commit an additional act of sexual violence or other violence.

• Whether the alleged perpetrator has a history of arrests that indicates a history of sexual violence or other violence.

Under the bill, if an institution decides to take the allegations to law enforcement, school officials would have to tell the alleged victim in writing within 24 hours, including their reasons for the notification.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-South Jordan, noted these provisions to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

“This was another long and heavy effort working with our institutions trying to find a line,” Coleman said, referring the work it took to draft her bill. “I would not ever want to draw that line myself.”

But Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in a Salt Lake Tribune article said Coleman’s bill provides latitude too broad for institutions in determining whether or not to break victim’s confidentiality.

Rep. Brian King, one of only two lawmakers who voted against the bill on Friday, worried less sexual assault cases would be reported if victims knew a college or university could tip the balance when it comes to maintaining confidentiality.

Neil Abercrombie, USU director of government relations, said USU officials supports Coleman’s bill.

“I think striking this balance between our effort for a safe environment for our students, but then also the confidentiality and individual choice of our students — that’s not a new discussion,” Abercrombie said. “These conversations have really been going on for a couple of years.”

Aside from addressing victims’ right to confidentiality and the institution’s authority to report, Coleman’s bill also includes language that would allow amnesty for students who report an act of sexual violence to the school — similar to a policy already in effect at USU since the school’s Board of Trustees approved it in October.

Under HB326, a higher education institution in Utah “may not sanction a student for a code of conduct violation related to the use of drugs or alcohol if the student is an alleged victim of an act of sexual violence or a witness to an act of sexual violence.”

Under the USU student code already in effect regarding amnesty, if an individual, including a bystander, reports “in good faith” an incident of alleged sexual misconduct, they won’t be subject to disciplinary action by the school for certain violations of policy, such as underage drinking.

Coleman’s bill has been introduced at a time when sexual violence at USU is making headlines. Not only has USU dealt with several cases involving fraternity brothers over the last few years, but the school is currently working to make changes to how it responds to and prevents sexual violence — thanks to a task force chaired by USU President Noelle Cockett.

HB326’s passage also comes after the Utah System of Higher Education, which governs all Utah public higher education institutions, passed a “student safety” policy in January. USHE officials support Coleman’s HB326, according to the organization’s website.

 This piece originally appeared in the Herald Journal. Click here to read the original article.