Delaware legislation aims to make universities accountable for sexual assault reports

(file photo/NewsWorks)

(file photo/NewsWorks)

Legislators in Delaware are expanding a bill to strengthen sexual assault reporting, training and outreach resources on colleges and universities in the state.

After consulting with sexual assault victim advocates, Representatives Kim Williams, D-Newport, and Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, announced Thursday they will submit a revised version of their bill to ensure greater accountability and expanded victim’s rights.

“As a mother of a daughter in college, our colleges should do a better job ensuring all of our students are safe,” Williams said.

“Delaware’s colleges and universities must do more to not only prevent sexual assaults on their campuses, but to support and respond to victims properly when they disclose these crimes to university employees.”

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House Bill 1 was part of a bipartisan, multi-bill package introduced last year in the General Assembly focusing on reform that would help women in Delaware. Seven of the 11 bills in the package have been signed into law.

The bill was filed during the last day of legislation last year as part of the package and is awaiting a committee hearing and vote. During the break in session, Williams and Longhurst continued discussions about the bill, which led to the substitutions announced Thursday.

“It’s very important to listen to stakeholders when drafting legislation,” Williams said.

The legislation aims to ensure sexual violence victims on college campuses are aware of the options available to them, including criminal justice resources, and their school’s internal administrative processes.

A University of Delaware study found less than 5 percent of respondents who said they were victims of sexual misconduct on campus reported their cases to the university. Less than half of the students surveyed said they knew how to seek help after an incident of sexual assault. 

“The overall goal (of the legislation) is to make folks more aware, informing the public about what is going on, to make people think about how to improve our system,” Williams said.

“It’s trying to protect people, make people accountable for the crimes—but make sure we don’t take away the victims’ rights.”

The original legislation designates “responsible employees” at college campuses who, when given a sexual violence report, must take steps to ensure the victim understands his or her rights, and the support services available to them.

However, it also required a police report to be submitted. House Substitute 1 changes the language so “responsible employees” can offer a police report on their behalf, but only if the victim wishes. It also requires them to offer resources for medical attention.

Williams said after meeting with advocates and survivors of sexual assault, she wanted to ensure the state doesn’t re-victimize the victims, and thought this was an appropriate next step.

The substitute also would require colleges and universities to report their annual federal Title IX data on sexual assault incidents and the outcomes of those incidents to the General Assembly. If institutions don’t comply, the State can issue fines between $10,000 and $50,000 dollars.

The information would be made available to the public, making universities accountable and allowing Delaware residents to monitor their progress.

Each college must submit an annual report to the Department of Higher Education or Department of Justice. The Department of Justice also must receive and investigate complaints. The original legislation outlined police and public safety at campuses must submit reports, but the substitution includes state, county and local police as well.

The revised bill also includes designated penalties for institutions that do not meet standards for teaching their staff and students about sexual violence, rules for reporting and resources available to victims.

All penalties for any of the violations would be paid to the Criminal Justice Counsel, directly benefitting survivors of sexual assault.

“We don’t want people to say they’re training, we want to see what they’re doing,” Williams said.

 The University of Delaware released a statement following the announcement, saying it commends the legislature for focusing on the important topic of sexual misconduct on campuses.

“The University of Delaware is deeply committed to maintaining a safe campus for everyone and is devoting a lot of attention and resources to the issue of sexual misconduct,” the university said in an email statement.

“We look forward to collaborating with legislators as this bill works its way through the legislative process.”

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 1 is slated for filing Thursday and will remain assigned to the House Administration Committee.

“Campus sexual assaults are crimes and they need to be treated as crimes. As a state lawmaker, I feel obligated to make sure our state is taking these crimes seriously and to encourage a dialogue that empowers more survivors to come forward and share their stories,” Longhurst said in a statement.

“This bill will ensure that Delaware universities are doing more to respond to victims of sexual assault in an appropriate manner and will hold these institutions of higher learning accountable for their response to victims.”

Williams said her legislation is just the beginning, and she and other legislators will continue drafting other packages that help women in Delaware.

“There are so many things we need to do as a nation and a state,” she said. “This conversation will continue for many years.”




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