Nine students from the College of William and Mary traveled to Richmond Monday, Feb. 9 to contest a new bill moving through Virginia state legislature. The bill would require all faculty, staff and administration of Virginia public universities to report instances of sexual assault to community law enforcement within 48 hours of notification.
The group of students, led by Student Assembly President Colin Danly ’15 and Student Assembly Undersecretary of Sexual Assault Advocacy Mallory Tucker ’15, sat in on a meeting of the Virginia Senate Courts subcommittee along with students from Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University and the University of Virginia.
Prior to Monday’s meeting, the bill in question, Senate Bill 712, would have charged public university employees with a Class 1 misdemeanor if they failed to report instances of sexual assault to the appropriate law enforcement.
During the meeting, students expressed concerns regarding mandatory reporting and the rights of survivors — as survivors would have no say as to whether their experience was reported to community law enforcement.
“I am grateful to our lawmakers for wanting to take up this issue,” Tucker said, “However, despite the urgency to do something about it, patience and a lot of listening is necessary. I was shocked and amazed at how limited the understanding seemed to be of the complex issue that is sexual assault, especially on a college campus. There didn’t seem to be a lot of focus on the actual perspective of survivors and those who are close to them, and much more of a black and white ideology of ‘people who break laws need to be stopped.’ I was very shocked on how little information people voting on these laws seemed to have.”
Those College employees who work specifically with the survivors of sexual assault in the days, weeks and months following their attacks disagree with Senate Bill 712 because of the ramifications it could pose for the survivor’s healing process, Senior Assistant Dean of Students Care Support Services Donna Haygood-Jackson said.
“We feel that [mandated reporting] would set back the work we have done on having survivors come forward to ask for resources,” Haygood-Jackson said. “When survivors are sexually assaulted, they feel powerless and they feel their choices are taken away. If we create a scenario where they feel powerless about what’s about to happen and their choice is taken away, we are just re-victimizing them.”
The College’s current policy on reporting instances of sexual assault and violence is regulated by Title IX and the Office of Civil Rights. At this time, there are currently three resources on campus where students can go and be assured confidentiality as long as no one’s immediate safety is in jeopardy: the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center and the Haven. The Haven is a student volunteer-run safe space for survivors located in the Campus Center. Should this legislation be passed, only the Haven would remain confidential, as it is run by volunteers, not employees of the College. The Counseling Center and the Student Health Center would be forced to initiate mandated reporting.
“A lot of the volunteers here at the Haven feel that having a bill that requires mandatory reporting will set up a lot of barriers for people looking for resources and support,” Lauren Dybel ’17, a volunteer at the Haven who was also in attendance for the higher education subcommittee meeting on Monday, said. “For instance, if somebody comes to a professor looking for support, emotionally, mentally or maybe academically, the professor will struggle in finding a balance between being confidential with the student and feeling that they have to report it.”
After the meeting of the higher education subcommittee, the bill was amended so that instead of forcing collegiate employees to report instances of sexual assault to local law enforcement, employees would now be required to report the instance to an internal Threat Assessment Task Force at the College, which would include one member of law enforcement.
The bill, after amendments, has now been moved to the Courts Committee, where a final judgment will be decided before it moves to the floor. Once on the floor, a decision should be reached within a few weeks.
“There is always going to be a balance between survivor choice and public safety, and the Student Assembly is committed to giving as much agency and choice to survivors that doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to the public,” Danly said. “That is a very delicate conversation, but the Student Assembly is very active in this conversation in Richmond.”