Within legislative chambers across the country, the recent debate about the appropriate course of policy action related to campus sexual assault has risen to a crescendo. Tasked with both a moral duty to prevent and end such violence as well as the responsibility to ensure statutory and regulatory compliance on their campuses, higher education leaders are critical voices to shape the contours of policy. They are joined by victim advocacy organizations in leading the nation-wide discussion about how colleges and universities can and should be responding to campus sexual assault, and both groups are committed to serving as strong advocates for safe, equitable and inclusive campus environments.
As elected state leaders deliberate on proposed legislation that would change how professionals work to address sexual assault and gender-based violence at our colleges and universities, it is critical for higher education professionals and victim advocates to raise our voices and ensure the safety and well-being of our students and campus communities. In an open letter to elected leaders across the United States, NASPA and its joining associations and organizations share deep concern with bills pending before at least nine state legislatures: Iowa, Virginia, Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, South Carolina, and North Dakota.
In some states, proposed legislation would require colleges and universities to refer all reports of sexual assault the institution receives from victims to local law enforcement, essentially turning all reports of sexual assault to the university into a report to law enforcement. If enacted, state lawmakers would place campuses in conflict with certain provisions of federal laws, including Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Violence Against Women Act. Mandatory referral requirements would obstruct a victims’ right to an equal educational environment by increasing the likelihood that victims who do not want to report to law enforcement will not report to anyone and thereby be unable to access their federally protected rights. These bills would make it more difficult for victims to access the full range of reporting options guaranteed under federal law by restricting confidentiality in the reporting process, as well as perpetuating stereotypical and discriminatory attitudes towards victims.
Legislation proposed in other states would create rights for accused students, but not victims, to be represented by attorneys in internal student disciplinary proceedings, to petition state courts for judicial review of disciplinary proceedings, and to get a court to award monetary damages if it finds in favor of the accused student in such judicial review proceedings. Providing these rights to accused students alone leads to inequality between students that makes it virtually impossible for colleges and universities to protect their students’ rights to equal educational opportunities under Title IX.
On behalf of tens of thousands of college and university administrators, law enforcement professionals, and victim advocates nationwide, NASPA and our joining associations and organizations encourage policymakers to reconsider legislation that would increase the difficulty for campuses to prevent and end this violence and its devastating effects on victims’ lives. And although we applaud the aim to assist institutions of higher education to improve upon the response to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, an aim we all share, we encourage our elected leaders to collaborate with campus professionals and victim advocacy organizations to identify a course of action that responds effectively to this critically important issue.