Georgia state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, resurrected his controversial “campus rape bill” in the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday night which then passed it again 102 to 56 after it had stalled in a Senate Committee that wanted more time to study it. He used a parliamentary procedure to replace the provisions of another bill pending before the House, Senate Bill 71 designed to protect health savings accounts from bankruptcy, with the provisions of his House Bill 51. The bill has now been sent back to the Senate for possible consideration Thursday.
“The Senate needs to oppose this bill because it was created to protect perpetrators, not to help survivors,” said Venkayla Haynes, a student activist who testified against House Bill 51. “Mandatory reporting is not something that will improve the way sexual assault is handled on college campuses, it will actually make things worse. It's time that we listen to survivors and allies for once and not tell them to ‘trigger somewhere else.’”
While Ehrhart’s bill sounds like a measure that would both crack-down on campus rapes, by requiring campus officials to report them to the police, and protect accused students, by affording them with “due process” in campus disciplinary proceedings the devil truly is in the details.
Sexual assault survivors and their advocates have been telling legislators since the bill was introduced in January that mandatory reporting will actually have a chilling effect causing fewer survivors to come forward. The “due process” provided to accused students is undefined leaving it unclear if this means the protections already guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, or is intended to mean something else putting schools in the difficult position of having to design proceedings where there are unclear expectations as well as possible conflicts with longstanding federal laws, not only Title IX but also the Jeanne Clery Act, designed to help guide colleges and universities properly respond to campus sexual assault.
There have been several versions of the “campus rape bill” considered by the Georgia General Assembly, but all of them have contained the same fundamental flaws of mandatory reporting and unclear expectations for student disciplinary proceedings. The version passed by the House this week is the same one without protections for survivors that they already passed earlier this month, but even if protections for them included by Senators find their way into a finished product the bill remains fatally flawed.
“We will not compromise on any bill that was drafted to violate our autonomy, suppress our control, and silence our voices,” said law student Grace Starling, a survivor and one of the organizers of Students Against House Bill 51. “There is no reason that this bill needs to be put on the Senate floor this session. But if it is, I certainly hope that the Georgia state Senate will protect the rights of survivors, and protect its own in affirming the unanimous decision of the Senate Judiciary Committee to table this bill.”
Georgia is not alone in facing this challenge, and a key resource on these questions of national law is expected to be available by next year that could help provide much needed insight into how to balance all of these interests. The American Bar Association Task Force on College Due Process Rights and Victim Protections has been tasked with crafting recommended “guidelines and best practices to ensure due process for both the victim and the accused in college campus sexual misconduct cases.”
Given the high stakes – for survivors, the accused, and the colleges and universities charged with balancing their rights – the only sensible course forward at this time is to hold off on taking action until a bill can be crafted that protects all students on Georgia’s campuses, and considered next year. Acting rashly now could easily cause more harm than good.