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Georgia Debates Bill at Odds with U.S. Rules on Campus Assault

ATLANTA — A panel of Georgia lawmakers has approved a bill requiring college officials and employees to report sexual violence and other crimes to law enforcement, clashing with existing federal guidance laying out specific requirements under civil rights law.

The bill also would bar schools from taking any disciplinary steps such as suspending a student accused of a felony until he or she is found guilty or pleads no contest. Administrators could take temporary steps including moving students from dorm rooms or rearranging class schedules.

Wednesday’s vote by the House Higher Education Appropriations committee followed more than two hours of testimony from both opponents and supporters of the proposal by Rep. Earl Ehrhart. The Republican from Powder Springs chairs the panel, which is primarily responsible for reviewing budget requests from the state’s university and technical college systems.

Ehrhart filed a federal lawsuit last year challenging a “Dear Colleague Letter” issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2011 and has previously criticized schools’ disciplinary processes as unfair to accused students.

The federal guidance lays out specific requirements for dealing with sexual violence under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and says schools that don’t comply risk federal funding. The guidance also says school investigations must proceed with or without law enforcement, since certain actions may qualify as violations of Title IX even if police can’t prove a crime was committed.

Ehrhart said Wednesday that he doesn’t expect President Donald Trump’s administration to enforce the funding threat. He and other supporters of the proposal argue that schools aren’t equipped to handle the complaints and resort to policies that violate accused students’ rights.

“In this country, there are equal protection concepts,” he said. “The ends can’t justify the means in our system of laws.”

But organizations that support victims of sexual crimes have overwhelmingly backed the approach. Schools have a duty to uphold civil rights law by ensuring that students who are victims of crimes can continue their education, said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations and advocacy for the American Association of University Women.

Opponents told committee members that the bill takes away victims of sexual crimes right to decide whether to report to police. Some fear it will discourage victims from talking to a professor or other college employee who they trust.

Jessica Caldas, a graduate student in Atlanta, told the panel that she was raped by a fellow student during her freshman year at the University of Georgia and decided not to report it to law enforcement. Caldas said victims of sexual violence may feel shame or worry about a “stigma” if they report and need control of the decision.

The Associated Press does not usually name people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly as Caldas did.

Supporters argue some schools’ process for investigating reports violated accused students’ rights. Jonathan Hawkins, an attorney who said he’s worked with accused students, called schools’ decisions “an academic death sentence.”

The bill now moves to the full budget-writing committee. Ehrhart said he expects the full committee to hold another hearing.

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