The Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill on March 1 that would limit the role universities can play in investigating allegations of felonies on campuses, including sexual assault.
Under current law, students who are victims of a crime can report it to the university and seek punishment against the perpetrator like suspension or expulsion. Alternatively, they can choose to report the crime to campus police and press charges.
House Bill 51, which passed the House by a margin of 115-55, would change that. The bill would require universities to report crimes to law enforcement, which includes campus police departments. Universities could no longer investigate alleged felonies through disciplinary committees or hearings.
Furthermore, the university would not be allowed to pursue disciplinary action against the accused student until they have had a legal hearing. The bill would affect all public universities and colleges in Georgia, as well as certain private institutions that are eligible for tuition equalizations grants.
“No criminal investigation of [a felony] shall be undertaken by the postsecondary institution unless such investigation is done by a campus law enforcement agency,” the bill reads.
Supporters of the bill, including co-author Rep. Earl Ehrhart, said the bill will provide greater protections to students who are falsely accused of rape and sexual assault.
“You can’t punish someone in this country until you’ve proven them guilty of an act,” Ehrhart told the House Appropriations Committee before the vote.
He also cited concerns about post-secondary institutions’ capacity to handle such investigations without jeopardizing the evidence.
“These types of felony assaults belong in the civil authorities,” Ehrhart said. “We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year training our civil authorities to have the sensitivity, the capacity and the knowledge to handle these types of assaults and these types of crimes.”
Although universities would not be able to conduct their own investigations or pursue disciplinary measures, the bill would still allow for interim measures to separate the victim from the alleged attacker, including moving dormitories and classes the two might share.
Opponents of the bill, including Rep. Michele Henson, voiced concerns that the new legislation would favor the rights of the accused attacker over those of the victim.
“I understand removing one or the other [from shared student housing], but what you’re doing is removing any support base that the female might have,” Henson told the committee. She also voiced concerns that the victim may not be able to afford to prosecute the attacker in a court of law.
The bill does not make any clear funding provision for victims seeking to prosecute alleged attackers. According to Ehrhart, the money currently used to fund campus investigations would be reallocated into sexual assault awareness programs, campus law enforcement and counseling services.
Representatives from KSU declined to comment on the pending legislation. The bill is now in the Senate and awaits a hearing.