Staff Editorial: GW should be the first to speak out against harmful sexual assault bill

Based on its title, the Safe Campus Act sounds like a good thing. But this piece of legislation, which is currently making its way slowly through Congress, would undo much of the progress that sexual assault prevention activists have been making over the past few years.

Introduced by three Republican congressmen, the Safe Campus Act would prevent universities from investigating reports of sexual assault unless the survivor reports the incident to the police. In short, this legislation supports only the accused, and implies that universities’ internal processes for punishing perpetrators of sexual violence are unfair or even incompetent, while asserting police protocol is somehow better at handling such cases and supporting survivors.

But survivors should be able to make that judgment for themselves.

So far, only advocacy groups and national Greek organizations have opposed the bill, while colleges and universities have been quiet. GW should take advantage of this unique opportunity and become the first school to publicly oppose the Safe Campus Act.

“The University monitors all relevant campus safety legislation,” University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said in an email. “We want to continue to create a campus where all members of the University community feel safe, and the University complies with applicable local and federal laws.”

It doesn’t mean much that GW “monitors all relevant campus safety legislation.” But it would mean much, much more for the University to take a strong stand against the Safe Campus Act.

When dealing with sexual assault, the emphasis should be on supporting survivors. But instead, the Safe Campus Act adds another boundary to reporting a sexual assault, and puts survivors in a difficult and scary position. If the legislation were to pass, it’s likely that fewer survivors would report their attacks at all, let alone to a police department. We already know that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes nationally, and that the majority of GW students reporting unwanted sexual behavior don’t go to the police first.

Over the past few years, GW has committed itself to supporting survivors – not making the process more difficult for them. After making sexual assault prevention training mandatory for freshmen and giving survivors more time to report their assaults, it doesn’t make sense to stay silent on this legislation.

But issuing a statement condemning the Safe Campus Act does make sense. It could only mean good press for the University, especially if it were the first to speak out. The announcement may also help GW to regain the student trust it lost after failing to rescind Bill Cosby’s honorary degree last month.

In fact, it would hurt the University to simply ignore the Safe Campus Act. Since the bill probably won’t pass, schools have nothing to lose by speaking out forcefully against it. But staying silent is an affront to students and survivors who have worked hard to undo harmful policies. If GW chooses to say nothing, it’s likely that students on campus will speak up to oppose the bill on their own, demonstrating once again that the University is out of touch with students’ priorities.

It’s been refreshing to see national Greek organizations, including both fraternities and sororities, backing away from this bill over the past few weeks. Greek life at GW has grown steadily over the past decade, and now includes about 30 percent of the student body. Greek life members have spoken out about sexual assault over the last year, and it’s encouraging to see that trend continue.

Mollie Bowman, the president of the Panhellenic Association, said that although she can’t speak for all Greek organizations on campus, she believes many members of Greek life oppose the Safe Campus Act as well as a similar bill called the Fair Campus Act, which would not require survivors to report to police.

“I think those who are educated about these bills are against them,” Bowman said. “Based on conversations with Greek leaders on campus, I would say people tend to disagree.”

Recently, Greek chapters have placed a strong emphasis on preventing sexual assault through the creation of a task force and by giving their members the proper training. Joining national chapters in denouncing the Safe Campus Act would align the University more closely with Greek leaders’ mission.

“I don’t know what GW would come out and say,” Bowman said. “But I hope that they would say something. I hope they would say that the school plays a part in helping and supporting survivors, and that this bill doesn’t do that.”

It would make sense for a school in D.C. to be the first to get involved in a discussion about federal legislation. Campus is blocks away from where the Safe Campus Act will be debated, and GW has already partnered with the White House on sexual assault prevention and education. If the University wants to boast about how politically active the institution is, this is its chance to prove it.

It also isn’t the government’s place to tell students what’s best for us. Sexual assault is one of the few circumstances in which a person can choose from whom they want to receive help, if anyone. Constraining survivors’ choices will not help them – something student activists know better than lawmakers on the Hill.

Supporters of the Safe Campus Act claim that accused parties need this legislation to be insured due process of law, but they don’t. That provision already exists under the Campus SaVE Act, enacted in 2013, which sets minimum standards for institutional disciplinary procedures related to sexual violence. It requires schools to provide a “prompt, fair and impartial investigation and resolution” conducted by officials who receive training annually, and guarantees both parties the right to have an adviser present.

Thankfully, the Safe Campus Act has a slim chance of passing. But it’s still a harmful, redundant piece of legislation that demonstrates that the fight to protect survivors of sexual assault on college campuses isn’t over. Now is not the time to be silent, and GW should be the first to speak up.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with managing director Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, sports editor Nora Princiotti, senior design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer.

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