House panel advances 2 campus sexual assault bills

2/4/2015 –

Two proposals designed to combat campus sexual assaults — one labeled the “Jesse Matthew bill” — easily passed the House of Delegates’ higher education subcommittee Tuesday, but the more contentious issue of mandatory reporting was not on the docket.

House Bill 1888, by Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, would require academic transcripts to note if a student was suspended or dismissed because of “sexual misconduct” or withdrew while under investigation.

“This is the Jesse Matthew bill,” said subcommittee Chairman Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, referring to the suspect charged in last fall’s disappearance of slain University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

Matthew was “thrown out” of Liberty and Christopher Newport universities because of sexual assault allegations and ended up in Charlottesville “circling my daughter at U.Va.,” Massie said.

The issues before the subcommittee are “personal for me,” Massie said, noting his daughter is a recent U.Va. graduate.

“I know that that gentleman was circling my daughter up there for four years waiting for her to make a mistake,” he said.

The second bill recommended by the panel was House Bill 1785, a proposal by Massie designed to require campus or local police to report to the commonwealth’s attorney an investigation of sexual assault within 48 hours.

The bill stipulates that the investigation must be either initiated by the victim or rise to the level of threat to the campus community as defined by federal Clery Act provisions, which require colleges to issue a timely warning of dangers. It also would allow the victim to remain anonymous.

Susan Russell, a Newport News mother of a U.Va. rape victim who fought for similar legislation four years ago, told the panel she believes her daughter’s case could have been successfully prosecuted if such a law were in place when she was attacked.

“She was one of a handful of women with the emotional fortitude and willingness to file a police report so her attacker would be removed from the campus and not be a threat to anyone else,” Russell said.

Her daughter was attacked in her residence hall by a student she was neither dating nor drinking with, Russell said. The student was accused of sexual assault three times before he graduated, she said.

She said it was frustrating to have law enforcement “treat a felony sexual assault as an administrative matter.”

Russell and her daughter made their case before the State Crime Commission in 2011, but the General Assembly declined to act then.

Lawmakers have been propelled to action this session by the murders of Graham and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, whose 2009 death also has been linked to Jesse Matthew.

Russell came to the House hearing on behalf of a similar bill by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, which also was supported by Harrington’s parents. Filler-Corn’s bill was incorporated into Massie’s legislation.

The bills, which apply to public and private institutions, will go to the full House Education Committee today and then to the Courts of Justice Committee.

Also today, a courts subcommittee is set to take up House Bill 1930, a mandatory-reporting proposal by Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle.

However, Massie said Bell was still at work on his mandatory-reporting bill and not to pay attention to its current wording.

Similar legislation is working its way through the Senate, including a bill making the reporting of sexual assaults to police mandatory for employees of public colleges and universities within 24 hours. The Senate legislation would allow some exemptions, such as for campus crisis counselors, and would not mandate that the victim make a police report.

Such legislation has drawn objections from student advocates who fear the requirement will make victims of sexual assault even more reluctant to come forward and make it difficult for students to know where to receive help confidentially.

In both the House and Senate, campus sexual assault adjudication is being addressed through three bills, and Massie said lawmakers are taking the unusual step of having them vetted in the courts as well as education committees.

“We have been working really, really hard to get it right,” he said.

Massie told advocates in the crowded House hearing room also not to worry if the bills as passed Tuesday aren’t “just like you like it” because there was still time to “approve and improve these bills.”

“Today is not the end. Today is really the beginning of a long process,” he said

By KARIN KAPSIDELIS Richmond Times-Dispatch