HB 51 Fails Survivors and Fails Ourselves

This is a guest post from Elliot Beckham, a Democratic Senate staffer who has closely watched the process of House Bill 51, which seeks to address the way all felonies are handled on campus, and specifically sexual assault.

In the ceaseless and toxic whirlwind of our national politics, it’s easy to forget that just a few short months ago a video was released in which our president bragged about committing sexual assault. We all know what followed: the left crying bloody murder over this misogyny, the right throwing back charges of hypocrisy over a previous president’s offenses, the parading of survivors, the onslaught of additional accusations, 24/7 both-sides cable news coverage, talking points and thinkpieces.

In short, sexual assault became just another issue to pick sides on, back your opinion up with your own facts, and argue over. It’s great for the media, great for the politicians who cleave the fabric of our society and use those divisions to get out their voters, but horrible for everyone else.

Back in reality, sexual assault is a tragically common and life-changing crime. Anyone touched by it knows this all too well; those accused lose their reputation and, sometimes, their freedom. Those assaulted lose even more. PTSD, substance abuse, and attempted or completed suicide rates for victims of sexual assault are drastically higher than for the average American. Survivors report depression and emotional instability nearly uniformly, sometimes for years. Recovery is an often lengthy and painful process that can disrupt communities, families, and friends.

Less than a third of sexual assaults will be reported to the police, under half the rate for crimes like battery or robbery. Arrests, prosecutions, and convictions are even more rare by comparison. Police and prosecutors frequently advise victims not to move forward with claims, for reasons as transparent as a lack of belief in their story to those as complex as a twisted form of empathy in not wanting to put them through a lengthy, invasive, and frequently unfruitful criminal investigation.

Everyone in the public policy sphere dealing with the issue of sexual assault knows these things happen, so restating the facts doesn’t really get us anywhere. I only retread them to ground my point: it is easy to get away with rape. Men and women, powerful and unimportant, do so at rates that should shame all of us. The root causes at the core of this harsh reality — inability to confirm allegations based on the private nature of an assault, bias against sexually liberal behavior bleeding into objective analysis, societal reinforcement that no, they couldn’t have, they were such a good kid, take your pick—are essentially impossible to tackle through the long arm of the law. What we should be able to agree on and do through the law is to support survivors.

Georgia’s House Bill 51 is in its current form a measure that would require college employees to report suspected felonies against students to law enforcement and afford accused persons certain protections before any disciplinary action, and doesn’t sound like a bad idea. It is, however, important to consider what it started out as.

“No investigation of such matter shall be undertaken by the postsecondary institution unless such investigation is done by a campus law enforcement agency…In addition, the postsecondary institution shall not pursue any final disciplinary action against any student alleged to have committed a crime which would be a felony under the laws of this state until and unless such student is found guilty of, enters a plea of nolo contendere to, or is sentenced under Article 3 of 39 Chapter 8 of Title 42, regarding first offender probation, for such crime.”

Imagine going to class every day with your rapist. Being in the same club, playing on the same team, living in the same hallway with someone who forcefully took from you the most personal piece of your life. And imagine, given the unlikelihood any punitive action would ever be taken against your rapist, being unable to change any of this save uprooting your entire life — a choice many students don’t have the ability to make without sacrificing their education, financial future, or at minimum their sense of self. Recovery would (and for many, does) become a fantasy.

These provisions of HB 51 have been heavily modified since its introduction, though it still would impose serious burdens on colleges seeking to protect students and would deter survivors from coming forward. But the established intent will keep coming back, regardless of whether HB 51 lives or dies over this last week of Georgia’s legislative session.

We should step back and examine that intent. In a country where it has been established that accusations or even admissions of sexual assault can do little to impede a career or damage an image, shouldn’t we focus on the problems with rape we can solve? Shouldn’t colleges that seek to protect and heal survivors be supported rather than handcuffed? HB 51’s current provisions do the latter, and the above hypothetical will become reality for even more students should it become law. It would further discourage survivors from coming forward and beginning the path to recovery, and the toll that would take cannot be overstated.

From the outset, HB 51 and the surrounding issues have been hijacked by partisanship. When it was brought up for a vote in the House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee by its sponsor, who chairs the subcommittee, it was passed on a party line vote. When it came up in front of the full Appropriations Committee, it was passed on a party line vote. When the full House considered the bill, it was passed on a party line vote. When did we allow the support and recovery of survivors to become a partisan issue?

Not believing victims is a problem that won’t go away through new laws. But when it comes to legislation that deals with rape, anything that abandons an intent to protect anyone other than the victim should face intense scrutiny; people’s lives literally depend on it.

It shouldn’t matter which side of the political divide you fall on to see that.

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