Activists: Requiring Colleges To Report All Sexual Assaults May Backfire

September 10, 2015

By Anjali Shastry at The Washington Times

Requiring colleges and universities to report all sexual assaults to local police could actually backfire by scaring women away from reporting attacks in the first place, two advocates told Congress Thursday.

“The truth is, most students do not want to go through a law enforcement interview. Our experience teaches us that cops look for violence, for signs of a struggle, for weapons, they don’t understand the nuance of campus sexual assault,” said Penny Rue, the vice president for campus life at Wake Forest University.

College sexual assault was thrust into the national spotlight after a Rolling Stone story profiling a University of Virginia student who claimed she was raped, and met with a poor response from school officials. The magazine has retracted the story, but the issue has not gone away.

Some activists say there’s a crisis of sexual assaults on campuses, and schools across the country are grappling with how to address it — and in particular how to get victims to come forward.

Increasingly, colleges have implemented blanket mandatory reporting policies, but only Virginia has a statewide law requiring campuses to report sexual assaults. New Jersey and Rhode Island legislatures have considered similar laws, but did not pass them.

Lisa Maatz, vice president of governmental relations at the American Association of University Women, said reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement without a student’s consent violates several federal laws. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 requires colleges to tell sexual assault victims that they have the right to not notify the police.

She also said forced reporting would take cases out of victim’s hands and would have a “chilling effect on the willingness to come forward — exactly the opposite of what we want to happen.” Minority women in particular are even more reluctant to go to police, she said.

“We know there are issues in terms of gender bias in policing, racializing in policing, and for women of color, to mandate that they need to go to law enforcement is a great way to ensure that they don’t report to anybody, that they don’t get any help, that they don’t get any support,”she said.

But Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said mandatory reporting is necessary because police are better at investigating criminal behavior and protecting the rights of all involved.

“If our goal is to implement a serious response to a serious problem, involving the professionals in our criminal justice system is necessary,” he told the panel.

He said the solution involved building trust with police, and said that could help ensure people are more willing to report sexual assaults to those who can do something about it.

“If we’re concerned about the chilling effect of having a police officer pick up the phone and say, ‘I heard about your complaint, is there something I can do to help,’ we’ll never get beyond the barrier of improving that system,” Mr. Cohn said.

Only 12 percent of student victims go to the police about their assault, according to a 2014 Obama administration report.

Dr. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican on the panel, said he senses reports of assaults are increasing, which he said is hopefully a positive sign.

On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a $41 million initiative to clear rape kit backlogs across the country. While there are large backlogs, such as the 11,000 kit backlog in Detroit, some rape kits sit on the shelf because a victim chooses not to move forward with a criminal case against their assaulter, and so the rape kit does not get processed.