RICHMOND – Legislative support is coalescing behind a proposal to require that university officials quickly turn rape allegations over to law enforcement, or potentially face prosecution themselves.
A trio of Republican House leaders backed the requirement Monday, though they didn't spell out potential punishments. In the state Senate, Democratic Minority Leader Richard Saslaw said last week that he's working on a similar bill, and that he'll attach the possibility of a year-long prison sentence for violators.
Support for such a requirement appears to be both widespread and bipartisan in the Virginia General Assembly after Rolling Stone magazine published a terrifying description of gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. The article also described a culture of acceptance and cover up in the wake of sexual assaults there.
"This has been discussed as an issue for years," said Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville.
Bell is backing mandatory reporting legislation along with delegates Dave Albo and Todd Gilbert, and all of them hold some sort of leadership position in the House's Republican majority caucus, or on its courts committee. They're also all UVA graduates, as well as former prosecutors.
Their proposal would require any college administrator who learns of a violent felony committed by or against a student to inform law enforcement immediately.
Bell said Monday there needs to be more discussion about what penalties to attach to this. He said Virginia universities can still have their own adjudication process for suspensions and other punishments, but that shouldn't be the only investigation.
"This is not a college issue," Bell said. "This is a violent felony. … Nobody should get a pass just because he's a student."
This proposal also would require campus police to keep their local commonwealth attorney's office informed on sexual assault complaints and their subsequent investigation. Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, introduced similar legislation Monday, requiring campus police to loop in the commonwealth attorney within 48 hours.
The University of Virginia's policy has been to allow reports of rape and other sexual assaults to stay in house. The campus has a federally required Title IX office that focuses on a wide range of sexual discrimination issues, as well as assault allegations. But UVA has come under fire for lax penalties, even when attackers admit their guilt.
Nicole Eramo, chair of the university's Sexual Misconduct Board, has said female students often don't want law enforcement involved and that required reporting to police may make women less willing to report an assault. Other officials involved in a sexual assault task force Gov. Terry McAuliffe created earlier this year have expressed similar concerns.
Eramo told WUVA, a student-run radio station and website, in September that 38 people came to her with sexual assault allegations in 2013, and that four of those resulted in formal complaints.
"You would be very surprised how often I hear, 'I do not want to get him in trouble,'" Eramo said in a video-taped interview that WUVA published online. "They often have a personal connection to this other person and they do not want to see him punished."
But those comments, and the initial meetings of McAuliffe's sexual assault task force, came before Rolling Stone's report shocked the state earlier this month. Charlottesville police are now investigating the allegations in the piece, and the attorney general's office appointed outside investigators to study UVA's response in this incident and others.
The university's Board of Visitors has met and promised internal changes. It's statement, following an emergency meeting last week, vowed to "repair on a sustainable basis those aspects of our culture that have enabled the abhorrent conduct we all condemn … (and) instill a culture of reporting with an understanding that our community is committed to the fundamental principles of zero tolerance for sexual assault and the right to due process."
The details and implementation of that remain to be seen, though, and legislators have made it clear the university won't be allowed to simply implement changes on its own. House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, has called for legislative hearings on these issues during the first week of next year's session, which begins Jan. 14.
Bell said a university's hearing process can't replace a police investigation, and that law enforcement needs to gather evidence immediately whether the case is prosecuted or not.
That decision should be made by the victim and the local commonwealth attorney's office, he said.
"That doesn't mean that the case will have to proceed," he said. "But if you lose the evidence today, you may lose the ability to successfully prosecute tomorrow."