A controversial bill in Georgia that would limit rape investigations at colleges advanced on Wednesday, putting the campuses in conflict with Obama-era guidance on how to address the issue.
The bill, HB 51, sailed through the GOP majority largely along party-lines, 115-55, advancing what many experts see as one of the more restrictive laws on how schools can respond to campus rape reports.
“I’m glad to be that far out front,” state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, the bill’s sponsor, told BuzzFeed News.
Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs, Georgia, argued that the legislation was needed to protect male students who are kicked out of college over sexual assault claims under what he sees as unfair rules dictated by the US Department of Education. However, he believes those rules are experiencing their "last gasp," suggesting that the Trump administration will rescind them.
HB 51 is designed to stop Georgia colleges from setting up special procedures to investigate sexual assault cases and to steer more cases toward authorities. Under the bill, most university employees in Georgia would have to report all offenses that they believe constitute felonies to law enforcement — though they can withhold a sexual assault victim’s name, if requested.
The bill also states schools cannot conduct a “disciplinary investigation” if it will “obstruct or prejudice” a criminal probe. Ehrhart said this is designed to get colleges not to launch full-scale investigations if a case is still being considered by law enforcement.
“This is legislation that protects Georgia children on our campuses," Ehrhart said.
If HB 51 becomes law, it could set up an early test of how the Trump administration is going to address sexual assault in schools, and whether it will back away from Obama-era guidance on how to apply federal gender equity laws under Title IX.
Advocates like Anna Voremberg from the group End Rape on Campus worry that if bills like HB 51 become law, the Trump administration won’t go to bat when they conflict with existing federal civil rights standards.
“If HB 51 does pass, I’m expecting to see some lawsuits and we’ll see how that proceeds in the courts," Voremberg told BuzzFeed News. "But I am not optimistic that the Department of Education and the Department of Justice will enforce federal civil rights laws, because we’re seeing they’re refusing to do so in the case of trans students.”
A new line in HB 51 says the legislation does not supersede federal laws, but it would overrule guidance documents issued by the Education Department. This guidance is usually released as "Dear Colleague letters" that detail what the government expects schools to do to comply with federal laws like Title IX.
During the Obama administration, the Education Department said in guidance documents that colleges should not wait until a criminal investigation ends to begin looking into a sexual assault report. But Georgia state Rep. Regina Quick, a bill co-sponsor, said Wednesday that guidance is “just the opinion of another unelected bureaucrat.”
Ehrhart told BuzzFeed News that Georgia universities promised to reroute the “millions of dollars” spent adjudicating campus sexual assault cases to counseling and other resources for victims and rape prevention programs.
The Georgia bill no longer blocks colleges from doing any campus rape investigation unless the accused student was found guilty in criminal court, like it did when it was first introduced in January. But the bill remains widely opposed by rape survivors and victims’ advocates, and hundreds of students who say they’ve been sexually assaulted swarmed the Georgia capitol in recent weeks, including Wednesday, lobbying against the legislation.
One concern is that while HB 51 says university officials must report felonies to law enforcement, the bill does not say who determines whether something rises to the level of a felony. Some forms of sexual assault under Georgia law can be classified as misdemeanor sexual battery.
“It would require the school to have some training in determining whether it could be a felony,” Lisa Anderson, executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality, told BuzzFeed News. “They would have to basically have a criminal attorney to evaluate a case, and it’s a risk.”
Ehrhart said schools should use a “reasonable person standard” to determine what constitutes a felony.
“I would hope that they err on the side of caution, that most things like that are felonies,” he said.
Sexual assault survivors lobbying against the bill, like Grace Starling and Venkayla Haynes, who both testified against it, argued that requiring colleges to send these reports to police would create a “chilling” effect. Students who want academic help may avoid telling a dean because they don’t want their case to be sent to police, they argued.
Georgia Democrats opposed the bill because “each version that is offered is a rollback of victims' rights,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, of Decatur, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s weighting the process on the side of the accused.”
Student activists plan to continue to pressure members of the Georgia Senate to vote against the bill. They frequently packed committee hearings on HB 51 to voice opposition, sometimes earning rebuke from Ehrhart.
In a hearing last week, after a guest in favor of the bill told lawmakers that 40% of all rape claims were false — which is wildly inaccurate — the young people attending in opposition to HB 51 began loudly coughing and snickering. Ehrhart ordered them to cut it out, and said “if you feel triggered, trigger somewhere else.”
“I’m not going to allow spoiled children to hoot and holler and act ridiculous,” Ehrhart told BuzzFeed News.
He said he doesn’t know what the actual rate is of people lying about rape, but added, “I know from my own experience there is a significant amount of false reports, it’s not one-off anecdotals.”
On the House floor Wednesday, Ehrhart told the story of a student who was accused of sexual assault, and attempted to take his life, before he was ultimately found not responsible by his university. He said there were “thousands of unreported cases” of students who were falsely accused and punished by their colleges.
Democrats pointed out that they similarly knew victims who had been suicidal. One, state Rep. David Dreyer of Atlanta, noted that research shows the majority of rape cases are never prosecuted.