A bill that would have limited Georgia universities’ ability to investigate sexual assaults is dead—at least for this year, one high-ranking state senator said last week.
Last year Rep. Earl Erhart (R-Powder Springs) introduced House Bill 51, which would bar state colleges and universities from investigating sexual assaults on campus unless those crimes were also under investigation by law enforcement, and required certain employees to report those allegations to police. Sexual assault survivors and advocacy groups criticized the bill because they said it would have a chilling effect on reporting sexual assaults and potentially traumatize survivors.
Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos revoked an Obama Administration “dear colleague” letter requiring federally funded colleges and universities to investigate campus sexual assaults under Title IX—the federal law guaranteeing equal access to education for women—using the “preponderance of evidence” standard (more likely than not) and said the department would issue new guidelines.
“Until those regulations are promulgated, there’s not much point in this committee, at least from the senate’s perspective, in moving forward and doing anything with that bill. And Rep. Erhart and I have talked about that,” said state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Atlanta), chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The University System of Georgia has moved to what Associate Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Kimberly Ballard-Washington termed “substantial” evidence in cases where a student could be suspended or expelled. “It’s still preponderance, but [judicial panels] have to articulate why they believe they have the preponderance of evidence,” she said during a hearing held by the House and Senate education committees Jan. 23.
One lawmaker pressed Ballard-Washington on whether that’s actually a higher standard—technically, the next step up is clear and convincing evidence. “We ask them to articulate what it is that put them over the edge,” she replied. “It’s 50 percent plus. The plus shouldn’t be a gut feeling.”
Universities’ Title IX offices are still investigating sexual assaults, but the USG has moved hearings to student conduct offices, which conduct hearings on other types of violations of student codes of conduct. This has made the process more consistent and allowed Title IX officers to focus more on education and prevention, Ballard-Washington said. Both sides can have a lawyer at a hearing, but “it’s a student process, and the students present for themselves,” she said.
Freshmen are now required to complete online sexual assault and substance abuse prevention training, Ballard-Washington said. “The hope is more preventative work will lead to a decrease in incidents related to sexual misconduct across our campuses,” she said.
House Higher Education Committee Chairman Rick Jeffares (R-Griffin) said that the USG’s changes have satisfied critics who think students who are accused of sexual assault can be railroaded. Erhart “is very complimentary of what’s going on, and how y’all have moved and made it a better situation,” Jeffares said.
The issue may come back up again next year if the Department of Education does issue new guidelines, Millar said. Regardless, he said he is opposed to the mandatory reporting provision in HB 51. “I personally have not been given a reason to make it mandatory,” he said. “I think this is a very personal matter.”