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Alexandra Tashman: Sexual assault bill redundant despite good intentions

By Alexandra Tashman

January 17, 2014 1:35 am

In the wake of a number of federal complaints involving underreporting of sexual assaults on California college campuses, California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill Jan. 6 seeking to improve the way universities handle complaints by involving police officers early on in the process.

Although the bill is well-intentioned, aiming to keep colleges from stifling reports of sexual assault, it ultimately risks creating redundancy in the reporting process and fails to improve it for survivors who have already decided not to involve the police.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates only 40 percent of rapes are ever reported to the police. Of those, only 8 percent get prosecuted, 4 percent receive a felony conviction and only 3 percent of rapists will ever spend a single day in prison for their crimes.

Assembly Bill 1433 attempts to change these numbers by requiring university administrators to alert the police of any violent crime that comes to their attention, provided the student consents to police involvement. But as students already have the option of reporting crimes to the police and universities already keep crime records of their own, the bill would likely do little to increase reporting of sexual assault.

To begin with, the bill re-legislates laws that already exist in response to allegations of misconduct. Multiple California universities are already facing accusations that they are in violation of Title IX and the Clery Act, two pieces of federal legislation that govern the way sexual assault is reported. Those laws have already been in effect for decades; the state legislature should look to aid existing federal efforts rather than duplicate them.

For example, the bill requires universities to clarify which police departments or security agencies are responsible for providing services to their campuses. But the Clery Act, originally passed in 1991, already mandates that universities publish an annual report on their working relationships with state and local agencies.

In short, if universities were unclear on who their police counterpart is, they would already be in violation of the Clery Act, making the state bill superfluous.

Furthermore, the bill directly misses the point on how legislation could be used to tackle high rates of sexual assault on college campuses.

Students who want to report to the police in addition to their universities already have the power to do so.

So instead of reflexively involving the police when students may have already decided to avoid them in the first place, the bill should seek to actually make it easier for survivors to report sexual assault. If legislators want to accomplish that goal, they should instead try to make administrators better-equipped to handle incidents of violence themselves.

Gatto said he hopes increasing contact between administrators and police will help create a cultural shift toward greater accountability and understanding in sexual assault reporting. But the best way to change attitudes about sexual assault is directly, by educating and informing the administrators who are on the front lines.

Instead of debating a bill that will most likely not change anything for actual and potential victims of sexual assault, assembly members should work on legislation that helps victims come forward, ideally through sensitivity training and consent-related educational efforts. Trainings that help administrators know how to respond more appropriately to survivors are a better use of everyone’s time and money.

These tactics actually address case mishandlings at their roots rather than superficially encouraging police involvement as a Band-Aid means of making things better.

Email Tashman at [email protected] or tweet her @alexandra_tash. Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.

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