VA takes discretion from sex assault victims, empowers universities

A new Virginia law will strip sexual assault victims of their right to choose whether or not to file a criminal report by requiring all university employees who learn of an act to inform the school’s Title IX office.

The law, set to take effect October 1, requires any “responsible employee who in the course of his employment obtains information that an act of sexual violence may have been committed against a student attending the institution” to “report such information to the Title IX coordinator as soon as practicable.”

The law further requires employees to report an incident without regard for the actual location, meaning that even if the alleged act occurred on “public property,” the case must still be referred initially to the school’s Title IX office.

Additionally, all Virginia institutions of higher education (both public and private nonprofits) must establish a “review committee,” which will conduct its own private investigation into the matter prior to any referral to an outside law enforcement agency.

The committee will then be granted privileged information for its review, including “law enforcement records,” “criminal history record information,” “health records,” and “institutional conducts or personnel records.”

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Only after the Title IX office completes its review will the school decide whether to “disclose such information to the law-enforcement agency that would be responsible for investigating the alleged act of sexual violence.” Throughout the whole process, the law makes no mention of informing the alleged victim of the review until after the case is passed on to local law enforcement officials, though it does require their consent in order for a case to be passed on to law enforcement before the committee has completed its investigation.

This effectively means that the alleged victim will have no say in whether a criminal report is filed, leaving such decisions entirely to the discretion of the Title IX review committee.

Indeed, the law even makes this explicit, stipulating that “The provisions of this section shall not require a person who is the victim of an alleged act of sexual violence to report such violation.

The law does, however, require that the review committee meet with an “attorney for the Commonwealth or other prosecutor responsible for prosecuting the alleged act of sexual violence” within 24 hours and provide him with “the information received by the review committee.”

The legislation has already taken some flak from Virginia residents, including one female George Washington University student, who said the law will create a “distrustful atmosphere” within universities.

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“Supporters of the law might say it protects survivors by making sure justice is served against the assailants. But still, the law takes away survivors’ control,” Melissa Holzberg wrote in an op-ed for The GW Hatchet, where she serves as opinions editor. “Laws like this don’t ensure justice will be served, and they may discourage survivors from sharing their stories at all.”

Holzberg then outlines the many reasons why sexual assault survivors would want to refrain from pursuing legal action—a choice they will no longer be afforded under this new measure.

“Some don’t want to face their assailants or don’t want to constantly recall the assault to countless investigators and offices,” she continued. “Regardless of the ‘why,’ it makes little sense that state officials would force school officials to report sexual assault cases to a state attorney without survivors’ consent.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski