A divided Utah House of Representatives voted 41-33 on Tuesday for a bill that empowers colleges and universities to report sexual assaults to law enforcement over the objections of victims.
HB254, now on its way to the Senate, was motivated in part by the experience of a Utah State University student who reported being raped, only to discover that campus administrators were already aware of five victims by the same perpetrator.
“These are crimes,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, the bill’s sponsor. “We’ve got to treat them like the felony crimes that they are.”
But critics of HB254 questioned whether student victims would be less likely to report to campus support services if their requests for confidentiality can be overruled.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill is well intentioned, but takes the wrong approach to helping victims and improving campus safety.
“We’re not going to be supporting the survivors,” Romero said. “We’re going to be pushing survivors back into the shadows and they’re not going to report.”
While the bill awaited its first floor vote, lawmakers were contacted by local and national victims’ advocacy organizations who oppose the bill, including the Human Rights Campaign, Know Your IX, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Victim Rights Law Center.
“We know that HB254 won’t help fight sexual assault — instead, it would make campuses far less safe and force survivors into a broken system,” stated a letter signed by 43 advocacy groups.
And Julie Valentine, a Brigham Young University professor and sexual assault researcher, sent an email to Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, that was shared with members of the House.
Valentine referred to new policies in the U.S. military that encourage victims to report as a potential model for higher education. Taking power away from victims to choose whether or when to contact law enforcement, she said, makes it less likely that serial perpetrators will be identified.
Increasing reporting rates of sexual assault is key to reducing sexual violence on campuses and in our communities,” Valentine wrote.
But some lawmakers were skeptical that the state’s already-low reporting rates could decrease. Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, reiterated a comment he made during a committee hearing on the bill that the concern of a chilling effect is made moot when so few victims currently report their assaults.
“How in the world can you have a chilling effect when you’re already reporting one out of 30?” Quinn asked. “What we are doing now isn’t working. Something must change to protect the people who are still on campus.”
One of the House’s most conservative members, Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, cautioned that the bill could conflict with federal laws regarding campus sexual assault.
Campuses are already required to take action against safety threats, he said, and it would be better to demand accountability from Utah’s campus administrators than to expose sexual assault victims against their will.
“We have all the tools to go forward,” Christensen said. “It’s not as if a new law is necessary.”
Mandates amnesty for victims and witnesses of campus sexual violence, and permits colleges and universities to supersede a victim's request for confidentiality and report alleged crimes to law enforcement. - Read full text
Feb. 15: Threats to college and university campuses may outweigh the privacy of sexual assault victims, Utah lawmakers say
College and university administrators in Utah who believe allegations of sexual assault pose “an articulable and significant threat to campus safety” could go against a victim’s wishes and turn information over to police, under a bill that drew initial approval on Thursday.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 8-2 for HB254, which outlines the circumstances when a victim’s desire for confidentiality can be overruled, and also mandates that colleges offer amnesty from conduct-code violations for students who are victims of or witnesses to sexual violence.
The bill also spells out issues for campus employees to weigh in approaching law enforcement, including whether an accused perpetrator has a criminal record or history of sexual violence; whether they threatened additional violence against the victim or other students; and whether the alleged assault was committed with a weapon.
HB254 now moves to the full House for consideration.
The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said it’s wrong that campus employees can be aware of perpetrators — and sometimes serial perpetrators — without that information being shared with the police.
“No woman should ever go to the police after a brutal rape and find out that the institution knew about five other victims before her and did nothing to prevent her rape,” Coleman told colleagues. “That should not happen. That should produce outrage.”
Coleman was joined in her presentation to committee members by Jeffrey Eisenberg, an attorney currently representing a student who has sued Utah State University over its handling of her sexual assault.
Multiple women had previously accused his client’s attacker, Eisenberg said, and faculty failed to take action despite having “a bad feeling” about the accused student.
“The reason nothing happened was that the university officials did not know what they could do and what they couldn’t do,” Eisenberg said. “If the current legislation is made law, it will provide better guidance to the employees of universities that if public safety is threatened, that threat can be acted on by reporting this to law enforcement.”
But several individuals spoke against the bill, including sexual-violence researchers and advocates for victims.
Julie Valentine, a Brigham Young University professor, said victims need to feel empowered to make decisions about their cases, including whether and when to report to police. The best way to combat campus sexual assault, Valentine said, is to enact policies and establish support services that encourage victims to report their attacks.
“If this bill passes, this will have a chilling effect on reporting of campus sexual assault because it takes power away from the victim,” Valentine said. “This will go against increasing our reporting rates.”
Gary Scheller, director of the Utah Office for Victims of Crime, described HB245 as “counterintuitive.” The bill’s approach, he said, goes against the best practices of reform policies enacted in the U.S. military and in higher education.
“This movement of taking away control from the victim is absolutely the opposite direction of where the entire nation has gone,” Scheller said, “absolutely the opposite direction of what has related to an increase in people coming forward.”
But some committee members referred to estimates that between 3 percent and 6 percent of campus sexual assaults are reported. The potential of a chilling effect, they said, is moot in light of so few reports currently coming in to campus or law enforcement authorities.
“Clearly the status quo is not working,” said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.
Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, suggested that the benefit of involving law enforcement is greater than the risk of fewer reported assaults.
“It’s hard for me to comprehend how it would have a chilling effect on something that is only being reported one out of 30 times,” Quinn said.
Coleman said she objected to the practice of college and university administrators playing any role in the response to campus sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are crimes, she said, and are best addressed by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
“We’ve got professors handling evidence, administrators taking testimonies and kangaroo courts,” she said. “We need to pull in law enforcement where there is expertise.”
Campus policies on sexual violence are subject to Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. When an incident is reported to campus representatives, they typically conduct a review to determine what academic actions are necessary, such as adjustments to class schedules and on-campus housing or expulsion of an accused perpetrator.
In most cases, reporting the assault to law enforcement authorities is up to the victim, with criminal proceedings separate and unrelated to academic sanctions that might be imposed on a perpetrator by campus administrators.
Title IX allows some discretion for colleges and universities to involve law enforcement without the permission of the alleged victim, Valentine said. But HB245 broadens that ability at the state level and could be interpreted by some institutions in ways that deter reporting by victims, she said.
“Our end goal is the same and there are things that are good in this bill,” the BYU professor said. “The issue about taking control away from victims, that’s where this bill misses the mark.”
Valentine was part of a BYU task force that recently suggested updates to the Provo school’s sexual-assault policies, including the adoption of an amnesty. The university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came under fire in 2016 after reports emerged that student victims had been investigated and punished for violating campus rules after disclosing their assaults.
HB245 was approved on a party-line vote of the House Judiciary Committee.
The panel’s two Democratic members, Rep. Brian King of Salt Lake City and Rep. Mark Wheatley of Murray, said empowering victims should be a priority, and that the lawmakers should defer to the expertise of researchers and advocates.
“I just don’t think we’ve got it quite right yet,” King said.