New law may change how rapes are reported

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 17, 2017

By Melanie Ruberti

LaGRANGE – The debate over who first should investigate a claim of sexual assault on a college campus is heating up in the state capitol.

The proposed bill (HB 51) states colleges and universities must report any allegations of sexual assault to local law enforcement agencies first, and they cannot identify victims without consent. The measure also reads a victim cannot be forced to cooperate with law enforcement officers.

But HB 51 also does not allow school administrators to conduct their own investigation until after law enforcement officials wrap up their case. This reduces the risk college officials may destroy evidence needed for a criminal case, according to the proposal.

There are mixed feelings about the bill inside the state Capitol – and in Troup County.

“I am all for pressing charges and having law enforcement involved. I think there is a lot of good that can come out of it,” said Michele Bedingfield, executive director of Harmony House. “However, my concern is that when an assault happens on a college campus, students will fail to report it because they don’t want to get the law enforcement or the judicial system involved.”

Bedingfield heads up the state-certified emergency shelter in the community and sees victims of domestic violence –  plus survivors of sexual assault. Harmony House, a United Way agency, helps people from all walks of life and various ages, Bedingfield said.

The executive director fears a “requirement” for colleges to report an alleged rape means fewer victims will come forward and instead may suffer in silence.

“Ultimately … sexual assault victims would not receive the help, information and resources they need,” Bedingfield stated.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education advised colleges and universities across the country that under Title IX, a federal law required institutions to punish perpetrators of sexual assault – or risk losing federal funding.

HB 51 would initially strip the power to punish the accused away from colleges and universities around the state of Georgia.

“House Bill 51 would place the college in the precarious position of being forced to choose whether to follow state law or existing federal laws,” stated Dan McAlexander, president of LaGrange College. “Our overriding concern is the well-being of all our students, and we hope that our state lawmakers do not place our Georgia colleges in this troubling legal position.”

LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar said the department and LaGrange College already work closely together. Both organizations have a protocol in place to handle sexual assault cases and work with the victims.

Dekmar does not believe HB 51, if signed into law, will have a big impact on the relationship between police investigators and colleges in the community.

“The importance of the relationship between law enforcement and college …  is for them to inform us of any (sexual assault) allegations,” Dekmar said. “… if the victim declines to speak with us, we (LPD) can at least document the event for further investigation … in the case we have a series of reports of rapes in an area …”

While HB 51 may assist law enforcement officials catch sexual predators, solve crimes and bring justice in the end; some folks feel the proposal does little to help the victims during the investigation.

Bedingfield believes the legislation gives more rights to the accuser than to the victim.

“The problem with HB 51 is that it really limits how much a college can do when there’s a sexual predator on campus,” Bedingfield explained. “It puts all of the emphasis on the criminal justice system and the process – which could take years. Meanwhile, you have a victim who is unable to have the alleged suspect moved from her dorm building or moved to different classes.”

HB 51 is sponsored by Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs).

Ehrhart stated the measure would allow college officials to move the victim to different classes or another dorm until the incident is resolved.

But the proposal prevents school administrators from relocating the alleged attacker before the investigation is finished because it could be considered as “discipline” against the accused.

Bedingfield believes the school should retain their rights as an authoritative entity once an allegation of sexual abuse is made.

“We (Harmony House) would like to see college and university campuses maintain Title IX hearings (of alleged sexual misconduct), regardless if there is a criminal process or not,” Bedingfield stated.

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes overall, said Bedingfield.

But the reports of alleged sexual assaults to college administrators has increased over the last few years, she added.

Bedingfield believes the uptick in reports is a result of college campuses having safeguards in place so students feel more comfortable about reporting sexually violent crimes.

HB 51 passed the House in early March, but not without opposition. The proposal remains up for debate in the state Senate.

Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She can be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.