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Safe Campus Act sparks discussion across the nation about sexual assault

By Abigail Kelly, Senior Staff Writer

Students are speaking out against the Safe Campus Act, a bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives in July to enforce new guidelines for universities' sexual assault protocol. Some students feel the bill sets the bar too high for conviction.

The bill first states that universities will be required to implement programming, support for students and training to school faculty and staff for sexual assault.

Senior Laura Uribe, co-president of Miami's Women Against Violence and Sexual Assault (WAVES), feels the bill starts to fall apart later in the legislation, in Section 163, "Role of Law Enforcement Agencies in Investigation of Allegations of Sexual Violence."

"It essentially states that universities are not able to punish sexual offenders, let alone investigate sexual assault cases, until the case has been reported to the police," Uribe said.

This section of the bill states that an individual who wants to report a sexual assault can provide written notification to the university, which will then be relayed to the school's local law enforcement. An individual can also provide notification that they do not want the allegation to be investigated by the police.

In the following section the bill states, "Each institution of higher education may not impose any sanction on any person, including a student organization, in response to an allegation unless the sanction is imposed under a formal hearing or similar adjudicatory proceeding."

The bill continues to lay out requirements of the due process rights individuals have, including that all parties have access to all material evidence, that each person the allegation is made against has a meaningful opportunity to admit or contest the allegation and that the university can set a standard of proof that would need to be met.

Uribe feels that supporters of the bill are protecting the wrong people by allowing the police to investigate the claim first.

"Lobbyists argue that one of the reasons this law should be implemented is to protect the falsely accused," Uribe said. "Universities are not required to check in with the police before acting on assaults, drug dealing or even underage drinking, Sexual assault should be no different."

In favor of the bill is former Senator Trent Lott, who was hired by the Interfraternity Council to lobby on its behalf.

"The current approach is much more likely to result in errors that could harm students for the rest of their lives," Lott wrote in a Washington Post editorial. "In many cases, students are not allowed to review the charges against them, are not permitted access to counsel and cannot cross-examine witnesses or know the status of their cases."

Junior Carly Coats, a former volunteer with the organization Women Helping Women, which supports survivors of sexual assault, said the legislation might do more harm than good. As a member of Greek life, she said she is disappointed that the National Panhellenic Council and the Interfraternity Council have shown their support for the bill.

"When Greek life is involved, the media emphasizes that point instead of focusing on the assault itself," Coats said. "Because of this negative media attention, I understand why they support this legislation, but I think they're trying to save the wrong people."

Coats sees that police involvement can make it much more difficult for survivors wanting to come forward.

"It is already incredibly difficult for victims to speak out against their assailants, and this legislation, in my opinion, discredits victims by saying that assailants should not be punished until there is legal action against them," Coats said. "I understand that false accusations ruin people's lives, but they are extremely rare and they do not ruin lives nearly as much as the actual sexual assaults."

An analysis of crime reports by social scientists at the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance, showed between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assault claims are false.

Senior Magda Orlander agrees and said she feels the bill protects the wrong people.

"I would understand if more than half of the cases were falsely reported and people got convicted over it," Orlander said. "But they are turning a non-issue into an issue and thereby erasing the real issue at hand."

Uribe see a new issue raised with the Safe Campus Act. If the bill is passed, and a sexual assault case reported to the university has to go through law enforcement channels, the survivor's choice of how "he oor she" want to proceed is taken away.

"Universities should do everything they can to make students feel safe," Uribe said. "If a student does not want to report a sexual assault to the police, the university should still have every obligation, and desire, to stand by that student and make sure that the situation is resolved and appropriate punishment is administered."

The issue that Miami's faces with the Safe Campus Act is that students are not aware the bill has been proposed and are unsure of what it is trying to accomplish.

"Unless it is this group of very activist students who are very involved. So I don't think students are very aware of what is going on," Orlander said.

Orlander, Uribe and Coats see it is important for students to understand the legislation and start having a discussion about it.

"I think it should be a point of discussion for sure, whether students support the bill or not," said Coats. "It will definitely have an impact, and we need to talk about it."