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A proposed bill to encourage disclosures of sexual violence on Maryland college campuses has split opinions among college safety advocates.

Del. Jon Cardin, D-District 11, introduced a bill Jan. 29 to the Maryland House of Delegates. The bill is split into two components. The first consists of the establishment of sexual assault victim advocates on each college campus. It will be these advocates' responsibility to provide information and support regarding sexual assault policies and procedures to victims on a free and confidential basis.

The second component of the bill requires all Maryland colleges to administer an anonymous online survey every three years to judge the rate of sexual violence.

The survey will be developed by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

"The ratio is unequal between what is reported and what is actually happening," Cardin said. "We want to find out what the actual number is and what we can do to provide services to those victims."

The results of the survey will be published with colleges' annual security report, required by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

The bill was developed with the aid of Nancy Cantalupo, a researcher with Georgetown University who has authored several articles about college sexual violence.

"His staff contacted me over the summer because he was interested in sponsoring legislation that dealt with sexual assault on college campuses, but they were still collecting ideas on what that might be," Cantalupo said. "There's been concern about low-levels of survivor reporting for decades, and it's been confirmed that there is a huge gap between what survey responses say and what is actually being reported."

According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, about 20 percent of women on college campuses have experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college. The National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center have estimated that as few as 12% of rape victims report their assault to the police.

Cantalupo said the anonymous reporting system will allow for a more comprehensive number of victims.

"We can't expect victims to willingly come forward and start reporting at all levels when [society has] a history of treating victims badly," Cantalupo said. "This survey takes the pressure off of survivors."

Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, a voluntary organization of Maryland colleges including Owings Mills' Stevenson University, said she fears the anonymous surveys will result in false responses.

"The good thing about anonymous surveys is that people feel comfortable responding to them," Bjarekull said. "The problem they face is with insincere answers."

Bjarekull said she was also concerned anonymous reporting doesn't actively help victims find the help they need.

"Our primary goal has got to be to help those who experience sexual violence," Bjarekull said. "We appreciate the intent, but we don't believe the bill does that."

Cardin said several college agencies spoke out against the bill at the hearing.

"I told them, if they have something that is better than this idea that is show to work, then please let me know," Cardin said. "Nobody deserves to feel unsafe on their own college campus."

Cantalupo said a key positive of enacting legislation is that it will affect all Maryland schools equally.

"Schools have had to deal with a public image problem," Cantalupo said. "If one of the schools does the work and starts to encourage more accurate reporting, then their sexual violence numbers are going to be higher than other schools in the area. It's a perverse disincentive that doesn't encourage schools to come forward and report."

Bjarekull said this legislation is duplicating efforts made on the federal level, including recent changes made to the Violence Against Women Act and the Clery Act, which requires colleges disclose crimes occurring on campus.

"We think Del. Cardin has the right intentions, but we don't believe this bill solves the issue," Bjarekull said. "Our feeling is that this just isn't the time for the state to do something."

Bjarekull was also concerned about the potential effects of creating victim advocates on campus.

"The schools have to be the arbiters. The neutral party," Bjarekull said. "So if they're providing advocates on behalf of the victims, they also have to provide an adviser to the accused."

Cantalupo said the legislation takes the school out of the position of being the middle man.

"As it stands, students report to the school who then has to report the number to the public. This way, it allows students to report directly to the public," Cantalupo said. "I don't think you can adequately address a problem when you don't understand the scope of it in your own community."

If passed, the bill will go into effect July 1, 2014, with the first surveys administered June 1, 2015.

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