SALT LAKE CITY — A panel of Utah lawmakers approved a campus sexual assault bill Thursday despite concerns that encouraging colleges to alert police to serious allegations could keep victims from reporting assaults.
Rep. Kim Coleman pointed to cases where women reported assaults only to find school officials already knew about multiple allegations against the perpetrator.
“No woman should go to the police after a brutal rape and find out the institution knew about five other victims before her and did nothing to prevent her rape,” Coleman, a West Jordan Republican, said.
Her plan passed with an 8-2 vote and now goes to the full Utah House for consideration.
Several advocates for sexual-assault victims said they were concerned that involving police without victims’ express permission takes away their control and could discourage them from reporting crimes that already have a low reporting rate.
Even the “sliver of a chance” the allegations could go to police could keep many victims from reporting incidents to campus offices where they can get support and treatment without the rigors of a criminal case, said Mara Haight with the Rape Recovery Center. Reporting rates have been growing, but a step toward more police involvement could reverse that trend, she said.
“We need to support victims in coming forward and then empower them by letting them choose what to do next,” said Brigham Young University professor Julie Valentine.
She helped guide reforms at BYU after multiple women said they were investigated for possible violations of the school’s strict honor code after reporting sexual assault.
Coleman’s proposal addresses that issue by giving victims broad immunity from honor codes.
Some lawmakers voted against the bill after hearing the advocates’ concerns, while others said they were swayed by the idea that getting police involved with serious cases could prevent future assaults.
“We’re talking about … an opportunity to prevent substantial, significant risk to campus safety to hundreds, maybe thousands of others,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican.
The proposal says schools may report sexual assault allegations to police in serious circumstances, like when multiple victims are involved. Though such reporting is now allowed, many school officials aren’t clear on when they can involve police, Coleman said.
Speaking in favor of the bill were representatives for a woman who sued Utah State University after she was assaulted by a fraternity brother. She says administrators had heard from five women who reported previous assaults but didn’t take appropriate steps to stop him.
There are times when the threat to campus safety overcomes the anonymity of the student-victims, said Kelsey Eisenberg, part of the legal team in that case.
Utah State, for its part, has said the suit doesn’t tell the whole story.