Advocates: Utah Sexual Assault Bill Could Harm Victims - Higher Education
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Advocates: Utah Sexual Assault Bill Could Harm Victims

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by Hallie Golden, Associated Press

 

SALT LAKE CITY — A Republican state representative is proposing legislation to require that Utah colleges give immunity to sexual assault victims for conduct code violations related to alcohol and drugs and allow school officials to report serious assaults to police.

But a sexual assault survivor and an advocacy group are pushing back against the proposal, saying it wouldn’t stop schools from investigating many victims.

Bill sponsor Kim Coleman said the measure is meant to make sure institutions are taking the right steps to reduce these crimes, and handle them appropriately when they do happen.

The news comes about one year after Mormon-owned Brigham Young University faced a major backlash when it was revealed it was investigating sexual assault victims for violating the school’s strict code of behavior. The institution announced in October that it would revise this policy.

Madeline MacDonald, one of the students who reported being sexually assaulted while a student at BYU, said on Wednesday that a bill that only protects students from being investigated for violations related to alcohol and drugs would not have protected her.

“Drug and alcohol cases are a minority of the cases where women are scared to report,” said MacDonald.

Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said in an email that amnesty is not appropriate in all sexual assault situations, but did not provide any examples.

“It is important for the higher ed institution to have discretion,” she said.

Coleman introduced a similar bill during the 2017 legislative session, but it failed amid concern that it wouldn’t protect all victims from investigations and would take control out of the hands of these students.

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She said she is still working on the new bill and may consider revamping it so that students who report sexual assaults are granted full immunity.

Coleman said the measure may also allow schools to refer reports of abuse to law enforcement agencies if they appear to pose a major threat to campus safety.

Turner Bitton, of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that could actually result in fewer people reporting assaults to their school because they don’t want officials going to law enforcement.

“It takes away that power from the survivor and gives it to the institution,” he said.

BYU announced in October that it would no longer investigate student victims who reported sex assaults for violations of the school’s strict honor code that bans drinking and premarital sex.

The change came after several sexual assault victims said they felt silenced by the policy and the Provo university launched an internal review.

The probe found that the Title IX office on campus sometimes shared victims’ names and details of assaults with the honor-code office after investigations were completed.

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