New assault reporting law should improve prevention

A new Md. law requires colleges and universities to survey students about sexual assault.

Marylanders will soon have a better idea of the extent of the problem of sexual assault in our institutions of higher education — as well as what our institutions are doing to respond. Thanks to House Bill 571, which goes into effect Wednesday, all Maryland colleges and universities must survey their students every other year regarding sexual assault victimization, access to prevention programming and the availability of on- and off-campus resources. Starting next summer, the information from these surveys will be available to the public.

This bill, sponsored by Del. Shelly Hettleman of the 11th District, is the first of its kind in the nation. It mandates the collection of school-specific data to help institutions across the state implement appropriate policies and programs to prevent and respond to sexual assault on our campuses. These data will also allow for comparisons among similarly situated schools, e.g., the number of assaults, types of accommodations granted to student complainants and the outcome of alleged violations to institutions' sexual misconduct policies.

Before this new law, those of us seeking to understand the issue of sexual misconduct at colleges and universities have faced serious limitations. The only institution-specific data available was by way of a campus' Annual Security Report, which is a mandate of the federal Clery Act. This tool includes "the number of forcible and non-forcible sexual offenses," but offenses only include sexual assaults that were reported to specific "campus security authorities." Victims of sexual assault might feel safer reporting an incident to a school counselor, yet these reports may not find their way into the institution's Clery report. Also, incidents must occur within "Clery geography," which typically does not include off-campus locations. With an estimated two-thirds of assaults at residential institutions happening off campus, the Clery Act data may simply tell us how comfortable students are in reporting sexual misconduct to campus officials, rather than how many assaults actually took place.

Given that significant attention is being paid to the problem of campus sexual assault, more survivors may start to come forward to get help. But state budgets are tight, and universities are being asked to do more with fewer resources. Many campuses do not have the expertise they need to fully respond to sexual assault cases. For example, a number of Maryland schools do not have victim advocates on staff. And for students who want to report a sexual assault to law enforcement, few schools have campus law enforcement officers who are trained to investigate felonies. Further, a student may not be comfortable accessing university resources at all, for privacy or other reasons. Therefore, House Bill 571 requires all Maryland institutions to enter into formal agreements with local law enforcement and victim service agencies such as rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. These agreements aim to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need if they are assaulted, no matter which school they attend.

Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime, and this is particularly true among college students. One barrier to reporting for college students is the role of alcohol or substance abuse in sexual assault. On some campuses, students risk getting in trouble for violating their school's conduct code if they disclose the use of alcohol or drugs, even in the context of an assault. To help reduce this barrier to seeking help, another provision of the new law will, under most circumstances, provide amnesty for alcohol-or drug-related conduct violations for victims or witnesses who in good faith report a sexual assault that involves alcohol or drugs.

For victims of sexual assault, reporting often means a lengthy and uncomfortable process — a physical examination, multiple interviews and the complex campus disciplinary and/or legal process. Student victims who come forward should be met by a system that is equipped to help. Students need an atmosphere with equal parts professionalism and compassion, and a sense that the institution has the resources to determine what happened and how best to respond. H.B. 571 will do much to establish that atmosphere, and it will encourage greater understanding of this issue across the state. By this time next year, we will know much more about the extent and nature of sexual misconduct at Maryland's colleges and universities, and can start the necessary work to develop institution-specific, student-informed solutions to improve prevention and response on Maryland college campuses.

Tara Richards is an assistant professor of criminal justice and a violence against women scholar at the University of Baltimore; her email is at tricha11@gmail.com. Jane Palmer is a professorial lecturer in the School of Public Affairs and the director of the Community-Based Research Scholars program at American University in Washington, D.C.; her email is palmer.jane.e@gmail.com.

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