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Campus sexual assault bill advances in House

Sen. Michelle Benson

Sen. Michelle Benson

Reporting a rape could be a click away for Minnesota college students if the Legislature acts favorably on a new bill.

The proposal brought by second-term Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Buffalo, contains a series of measures for the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system and the state’s private colleges. The legislation was arrived at through extensive background work between its author and those institutions, according to O’Neill, who spoke of “hours and hours” of research and negotiation.

That groundwork paid off, if Tuesday’s introduction in the House Public Safety Finance and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee is any indication. O’Neill’s bill was largely met with praise from committee members of both parties, and faced only a handful of questions about its implementation.

The bill would inscribe numerous mandatory rules for how schools investigate allegations of sexual assault. The subject has come under increased scrutiny nationally, following several high-profile cases where universities were faulted for lax or sloppy procedures.

Under the terms of the bill, schools and local law enforcement agencies would have to set terms for jurisdiction of sexual assault cases every two years. Another provision would protect a student from repercussions if he or she admits to the use of drugs or alcohol in the course of an investigation.

O’Neill told the committee she is “most excited” about the piece requiring schools to create an anonymous online reporting option. Under that clause, schools would reply to a victim’s allegation with details on how a formally filed case would go forward, as well as information for on-campus and external sexual violence counseling.

“They can actually report straight from their smartphone if an incident happens,” O’Neill said.

The university process laid out in the legislation dictates that schools set a policy discouraging administrators or school investigators from suggesting a victim “should have acted differently” to prevent the incident, and also protects a student from being forced to repeat and relive the alleged events “unnecessarily.”

The bill dictates that schools would refer the case for criminal charges at a rape victim’s request.

O’Neill’s proposal received supportive testimony from both the Minnesota Student Association and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).

Committee chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, wondered how the statistics would be compiled and made available to the public, recalling that his own efforts to research incident rates had been like “pulling teeth” in the past.

Caroline Palmer, a lobbyist and legal expert with MNCASA, explained that schools must report crime statistics under the federal Clery Act. Schools that fail to maintain and submit adequate data to federal authorities risk the loss of funding and, perhaps as important, could be listed among schools that are under increased scrutiny.

“No campus wants to be on that list,” Palmer said.

Aside from federal requirements, the bill calls for each university to report sex crime data, including the number of incident investigations and their resolutions, to the Office of Higher Education and to make the information available on its own website.

Several legislators asked questions pertaining to the bill’s potential impact on high school students who enroll in college classes. In its current form, the bill would cover only those students who attend class on a college campus, while those who take college courses in their high school would be exempted.

The bill would cost about $300,000 in state funds to put into action, O’Neill said after the hearing, adding that schools have told her the added costs to their current reporting and investigatory system are “minimal.” Representative from both the University of Minnesota and MnSCU were on hand for Tuesday’s hearing to answer questions, but did not testify either in support or opposition to the bill.

O’Neill described the school systems as “supportive,” and said she had worked to address their concerns prior to the bill’s introduction.

The committee eventually moved the bill on a voice vote, referring it to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee. O’Neill said she was confident it would be received well there, explaining she had received guidance from privacy experts on crafting language that would protect victims’ information.

The Senate companion is chief-authored by Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, and has bipartisan coauthors in DFL Sens. Greg Clausen (Apple Valley) and Terri Bonoff (Minnetonka), the vice chair and chair, respectively, of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

Benson’s version of the bill has not yet been heard, but O’Neill expected it to appear in that committee some time next week.

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