Laws to strengthen reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses are being considered in several states. So far, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have introduced bills which would require in some instances that police be notified of campus rapes and sexual assaults. Virginia’s bill HB 1343 would require that once a victim reports a sexual assault to campus or local law enforcement that the local Commonwealth’s Attorney be notified in 48 hours of the incident. The bill, according to those in support of it, has everything to do with ensuring tighter collaboration between sexual assault victims on colleges, college security, police and prosecutors.
On many college campuses in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., often times, sexual assaults are not reported to the police by the victim or campus police. A report by the Department of Justice found that of college rape and sexual assault cases only 20% of students report rapes and sexual assaults to the police. Without police intervention, these cases are not properly investigated. More importantly, victims do not often receive the support that a victim /witness unit in the prosecutor’s office can offer with options about going forward with the case, counseling and education about the process.
Morgan Harrington’s parents, founders of Help Save the Next Girl, wrote to the Virginia legislature in support of HB 1343. Their daughter, Morgan Harrington, a 2009 Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, went to a concert and never came home. Her remains were found over 3 months later. VA Chairman Albo has said that this “bill ensures that allegations of sexual assaults on college campuses will receive the same level of attention by police and prosecutors that off campus sexual assaults receive. This bill strengthens our justice system and encourages collaboration between victims, college staff, police and prosecutors.”
In New York, the bill proposes that victims be told by campus police that they have the right to report to police. But campus police will not be required to report the cases to the police. Rhode Island’s bill is like Virginia, and contemplates that the local police are better equipped to handle a rape or sexual assault case than campus police. Rhode Island’s bill proposes that any reports of sexual assaults on campus be referred to local police. New Jersey’s law also requires that colleges report to law enforcement.
And like everything in the law, there is a double edged sword or two sided coin. Some victims are saying that the police are not equipped to handle campus sexual assaults. The other side of the coin is that oftentimes the prosecutors with police investigation do not take rape or sexual assault cases. And many students may not want to report a sexual assault knowing that the local police will be involved. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a Columbia University senior with the sexual assault activist group No Red Tape, stated:
“If a survivor comes forward and says, ‘Hey I need help, I want to get this guy out of my classes,’ that’s very different from saying, ‘I want to involve myself in a lengthy arduous legal process'”
Many survivor groups do not want to see police being responsible for handing all campus rapes and sexual assault cases. And college victims should have a say over whether they want police involved. The laws may in reality cause less victims on college campuses to report sexual assaults and rapes—knowing that they might be subjected to the rigors of the criminal justice system. Those in support of the full reporting bills say that rape is rape regardless of where it takes place. And rape is a crime that should be prosecuted. If only, it were as easy as it sounds. While there is no distinction between a rape on college campuses and other locations, the goals should be about how best to help the victim. And perhaps college victims should be the ones to decide if they want to involve local law enforcement instead of being forced to have their cases reported to police. Hopefully these states looking to change reporting on college campuses will hear from victims and victim rights groups to weigh both sides of the coin.