As 20,000 students return to school at the University of Virginia this week, they will find the turmoil stirred up by Rolling Stone’s investigation into the institution’s handling of alleged sexual assaults has not completely settled – in fact, its impact has now reached the chambers of the Virginia general assembly.
The magazine’s article, published on 19 November, depicted in graphic detail the alleged gang rape of a student known only as “Jackie” at a fraternity house on campus. The reaction to the 9,000-word feature was quick and forceful – demonstrations erupted across the campus, an inquiry was ordered by university president Teresa Sullivan, all fraternities were suspended until 9 January, and a debate was launched into the best way to respond to sexual violence that involved not only students and faculty, but also law enforcers and politicians.
However, the initial Rolling Stone account soon came under intense scrutiny after key elements in the story began to unravel. In the fall-out to the fall-out, Rolling Stone put out an apology for its story, then changed its apology, before deciding to re-report the entire article – a process that is still on-going.
It’s been almost two months since the initial story was published, and UVA is only now starting to return to ground. As the nervous mood on campus settles, it’s becoming clear that one aspect of the furore is likely to endure – the debate about the best way to deal with sexual assault allegations that is now echoing around the Virginia general assembly.
The state legislature already has three bills before it that would radically change the way the reporting of such allegations are processed. A fourth bill is pending in the state’s House of Delegates.
The common theme between the various pieces of proposed legislation is mandatory reporting of all allegations to police. Senate Bill 734, for instance, which has been sponsored by the Democratic leader of the state Senate, Richard Saslaw, would require “any administrator or professor employed by a public institution of higher education who through the course of his employment obtains information alleging that a criminal sexual assault has occurred to report within 24 hours such information to law enforcement.” Any campus employee who fails to do so would be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
A bill pending in the state House would similarly impose mandatory reporting on all college personnel who would be obliged to inform police of any violent felony alleged by a student. The Republican sponsor of that bill, Rob Bell, who is himself an alumnus of UVA, as well as a former prosecutor, told the Guardian that he was trying to address a basic question.
“If a public employee is told about a sexual assault, what should their obligations be in terms of reporting it? There’s a consensus developing that, at least for violent felonies, it is best handled by the professionals of the law enforcement community who do this as their day job,” he said.
As the bills roll onto the floor of the general assembly in the wake of the Rolling Stone article, the idea that the law needs to be changed to force campuses to report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement is gaining strong traction. But that in turn is causing concern for groups who work with survivors of sexual violence. Some of these organisations fear that knee-jerk responses might end up doing more harm than good.
Kate McCord, of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said that the new bills were well-intentioned in that they rightly sought to hold perpetrators of rapes and other sexual assaults accountable for their crimes. But she also says that there’s an “underlying assumption that reporting to law enforcement will result in justice”, and that, historically, has not been the case for sexual assault survivors.
“Even though these bills are meant to help and protect students, they could have the unintended effect of reducing reporting because it will dissuade survivors from coming forward,” McCord said.
Her point about the weakness of the current criminal justice system’s response to sexual assault is underlined by UVA itself, which is one of 86 colleges around the country that have had so-called Title IX investigations into their handling of sexual violence complaints imposed on them. The Obama administration has been using the Title IX civil rights law that outlaws sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs to hold schools accountable for their response to sexual violence.
One of the facts contained in the Rolling Stone article that has not been disputed is that since 1998, UVA has expelled 183 people for breaking the honor code by cheating on exams and so on, while no one has ever been thrown off campus for sexual assault. Nationally, studies have suggested that the percentage of all rapes that are ever prosecuted may be as low as 5%.
UVA students and groups working with women who are victims of sexual assaults on campus are also worried about that the way the debate is turning to mandatory reporting in the wake of the Rolling Stone article. Sara Surface, a chair of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition at UVA who is in her junior year at the university, said she feared that if any of the bills were passed into law they could discourage women from seeking help.
“If survivors know that if they report to a professor or dean the staff in turn will be forced to tell the cops, that is totally going to dissuade people from making the approach,” she said.
Surface said that the abysmally low level of convictions for rape and other sexual assault complaints were well known to students. So too was the way that police officers, prosecutors and the courts dealt with such cases in ways that could re-traumatize survivors.
“Why would you go through all the agony of dealing with the criminal justice system – cops delving into your sexual relationships, asking you whether you were drunk – only for nothing to come of it? If you are going down the mandatory reporting road, you have to make sure that the system is better equipped to deal with survivors of sexual assault in the first place,” Surface said.
McCord agreed that tougher reporting rules could backfire. “Even though these bills are meant to help and protect, they could have the unintended effect of discouraging women from coming forward – that’s the fear that we have.”
Despite such qualms, mandatory reporting is attracting powerful supporters. John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, has given it his unqualified blessing. He has sounded out the opinions of his sheriff members around the state and said that the overwhelming consensus was that reporting from campus to law enforcement should be made compulsory. “When a rape is reported to the academic authorities, it can’t stop there. It must go to law enforcers or to a prosecutor.”
Jones said that campus staff could not be assumed to be impartial investigators as they had an incentive to spare the institution embarrassment or opprobrium. He said he had heard of incidents involving colleges (not UVA) where campus police had been instructed by senior administrators to drop inquiries into alleged sexual assault.
“Law enforcement needs to be public and with all serious crimes there needs to be accountability – otherwise women are at risk of not getting their rights fulfilled,” Jones said.
A compromise position has been proposed by a Democratic delegate, Eileen Filler-Corn. She has been pressing for legal changes to the way complaints are dealt with on campus since long before Rolling Stone kicked up its storm, having first sponsored a bill in this area in 2011.
In her latest effort, House Bill 1343, Filler-Corn places no obligation on university staff to report complaints to law enforcement. Instead, it would oblige campus or local police, once they had received a complaint, to pass on the information to a prosecutor within 48 hours.
Filler-Corn said she hoped this would “expedite the investigation and ensure that legal filings were completed.” She added: “I’m a mom of college-age students, so I am very concerned for their safety and security on campus.”
The delegate said that despite the criticism that had been leveled at Rolling Stone for its journalistic errors, the article had brought the issue to the top of the political agenda. “I’ve been dismayed that we haven’t dealt with this problem year after year. But now it’s being discussed, people have been outraged by what they’ve heard, and we all want to move forward.”
But such a nuanced approach may struggle to be heard amid all the noise.
“There are so many players now in this game, everyone is piling in,” Surface said. “I worry that the voices of survivors are getting drowned out.”