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Alexandra Tashman: Bill could improve handling of campus sexual assaults

By Alexandra Tashman

February 20, 2014 12:18 am

It seems like every couple of months a student files a complaint against his or her university for violating either Title IX or the Jeanne Clery Act, two laws meant to protect survivors of sexual assault.

Within the state of California alone, students have filed complaints against Occidental College, USC and the University of California, Berkeley over the course of the last year.

As often as these cases arise, an official at some level of government launches a legislative effort either to decrease the number of sexual assaults on campus or to prevent case mishandlings. So far, these efforts have been uninspiring. For one, California Assembly Bill 1433, introduced last month, would unnecessarily mandate police involvement in assault cases, while the equally well-intentioned Title IX audit of UCLA lacks student inclusion.

But a new bill proposed on Feb. 10 in the California State Senate has the potential to change this trend in less-than-stellar legislative attempts by taking a preemptive and education-based approach to sexual assault prevention and handling.

Senate Bill 967, co-authored by California State Senators Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), would firmly define sexual consent as it applies to assault cases brought on college campuses. By institutionalizing a definition of consent for every university in California, the bill creates an accountable and universal standard and mandates the steps needed to live up to it.

SB 967 departs from previous efforts by getting involved on the ground level of sexual assault reporting, including requirements for stricter confidentiality procedures and a system for anonymous complaints.

UCLA itself does not have an anonymous reporting system in place, said Chrissy Keenan, co-campaign manager of the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s 7000 in Solidarity campaign and a second-year undeclared social science student.

But what is particularly innovative about this bill is that it provides a detailed definition of consent that must be used when universities hold sexual assault case proceedings.

While the definition mirrors the one in the California penal code, by reiterating it in a piece of legislation that specifically deals with college campuses, the proposed law would hold universities to the same standard as a court of law in dealing with sexual assault cases.

This differs from existing procedures because university hearings are not held in a courtroom and do not have legal recourse beyond potential expulsion. Although it would be logical for universities to use the same definition of consent upheld by the state in their proceedings, they currently do not have to.

But the bill would impact UCLA in particular by implementing a strict list of requirements that universities must adhere to when investigating sexual assault complaints. These include having a written policy on how the school will guarantee survivor confidentiality, encouraging the inclusion of survivor advocates and coordinating with medical forensic examiners – all positive steps.

In addition, SB 967 would reinforce consent policies by requiring that universities investigate the role alcohol or drugs played in an assault. It also legislates the excuses that can’t be used for why consent wasn’t obtained, including if “the accused’s belief in consent arose from the self-induced intoxication or recklessness of the accused.”

What this means is that should the bill pass, schools would be required to have unambiguous policies in place regarding the role of mind-altering substances in sexual assault cases.

Ultimately, this proactive take on how to prevent case mishandlings on college campuses protects victims first and leaves less room for misunderstanding during university investigations of sexual assault.

By making sure assault survivors are guaranteed support and justice, this proposal has the potential to address a rising tide of dissatisfaction with the way colleges have handled cases of sexual violence.

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

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