Proposed sexual assault bill raises concerns on campus
Reporting campus sexual assaults to law enforcement authorities would become mandatory under a bill introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature, but one OU official expressed concern about its potential impact.
Senate Bill 312 would make it mandatory for any employee of a public college or university in the state to notify police upon hearing about a sexual assault or violent crime involving a student.
It also would require campus police departments such as OU Police Department to report any sexual or violent crime to local law enforcement agencies such as the Norman Police Department when they learn of such cases.
In addition, OUPD would be required to enter into mutual aid agreements with local law enforcement agencies to investigate these types of crimes.
The bill’s author, Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, said he hopes the measure will lead to a more transparent handling of sexual assaults and violent crimes by universities in order to prevent incidents such as the recent scandals at Penn State and Oklahoma State University.
The Penn State scandal broke in 2011 after Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant defensive coordinator under head coach Joe Paterno, was accused of molesting boys over a 15-year period. In June 2012 Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of molesting 10 boys.
In December 2012, OSU’s student newspaper, the Daily O’Collegian, received an anonymous email claiming a former member of the FarmHouse fraternity had committed 10 assaults on new fraternity members. After the paper broke the story, it was found that OSU’s student misconduct office never reported its investigation of multiple assault accusations to local police.
Ivester, said his bill was already in the works prior to the OSU scandal.
“I received a call from someone shortly after the Penn State scandal concerned over how universities in this state go about handling reports of sexual assaults and violent crimes on campus”, he said.
Kathy Moxley, director of OU Women’s Outreach Center, said that while the bill appears well-meaning, it could have the unintended effect of deterring victims from reporting assault incidents.
Moxley said adults should have the right to choose how they want to proceed after their victimization if they do come forward.
“Sexual assault is a crime that is about taking control away from a person in the most intimate way,” Moxley said. “Then, for the system to further take control away by saying we’re going to report this to police even if you don’t want to, is concerning.”
Moxley said that in her experience, more students seek out a route that does not involve the police or legal action when moving forward after their victimization. Her biggest fear with a bill like this becoming law is that it might deter victims from coming forward out of fear of having to go to the police.
Ivester acknowledged that several people, including his wife, a long-time victim’s counselor, have expressed similar concerns. He said that in the event his bill is passed, measures could be put in place to train faculty and staff to warn victims ahead of time that if they tell them a crime occurred, they will have to report it.
“Universities can train their faculty and staff to get these students to the right people they can tell, like counselors, who have that patient confidentiality agreement,” Ivester said.
Moxley said the ability to warn students ahead of time before they come forward is great, but the risk of deterring students from coming forward would still be there.
“I think it is great to be able to tell the victims in advance, but the problem is you still have victims who won’t come forward and seek the resources and help they need,” Moxley said.
Another concern involves the requirement for campus police to work together with local law enforcement agencies.
“I have received a complaint from an OU police officer on having to work with Norman PD”, Ivester said.
An investigation by the Oklahoma Daily last year determined that over a 12-year period OU students reported 61 cases of sexual assault, but those reports led to only six arrests. They included 31 reports of forcible rape, resulting in only one arrest. That suspect was not taken to court and could not be found in Cleveland County Detention Center records.
The Daily’s investigation found that over the 12-year period, no one spent time in jail for committing an act of sexual assault on campus. It also determined that cases handled within OU’s policy-violation system had a higher prosecution rate, punishing 11 of 16 students accused of violating sexual misconduct policies.
Ivester said the need for campus police and local law enforcement to work together is essential to ensure sexual assault and violent crimes are fully investigated and not just handled internally.
“I guarantee you there are sexual or violent crimes that have occurred on campus that only officials on the OU campus know about and no one else,” Ivester said. “OSU handled their case through an internal misconduct hearing, and it was not made aware to the public or local police until after the student paper broke the story.”
The failure to communicate and work together with local law enforcement at all times, according to Ivester, runs the risk that university officials will be tempted to cover up these types of crimes to avoid bad publicity.
“Handling these crimes solely internally anymore just reeks Penn State scandal”, Ivester said.
OU Press Secretary Michael Nash declined to comment on Ivester’s bill, but said the university would continue to comply with all laws enacted by the Oklahoma Legislature or by Congress.
Moxley said it is important to educate students on the issue of sexual assault so they know what their options are in the case that they do become victims. It is also important measures be put in place to increase not only reporting of these crimes, but also the level of comfort they feel in coming forward to someone about their victimization.
“It is important to note only 5 to 10 percent of victims actually tell anybody at any university around the country that they have been assaulted,” Moxley said. “We have a really low rate of sexual assault reporting, and it is important that we do everything we can to increase that so people can feel safe to come forward.”