Lawmakers: Privacy for sex assault victims is outweighed by security of university campuses

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (News4Utah) – Colleges and universities in Utah may soon be able to go against the confidentiality wishes of sex assault victims on campus, according to a bill that passed the judiciary committee Thursday. 

H.B. 254, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, R- West Jordan, outlines scenarios that would “allow a postsecondary institution to report an allegation of sexual violence to an off-campus law enforcement agency under certain circumstances.” 

Coleman argued to her colleagues the bill would help “make clear those circumstances in which an institution may then engage law enforcement.” Current language of the campus sex assault reporting statute states the “institution may report…” to local law enforcement agencies, even if it breaches a victim’s wish of confidentiality when he or she reports to campus officials or Title IX offices. 

“Right now, some [institutions] have interpreted they can’t [report to law enforcement],” Coleman told News4Utah after the hearing. “We’ve got professors and school administrators handling crimes. I don’t know how we got there.”

Some victims and victim advocates argued vehemently against the bill, saying it would undermine the hard work done to increase reporting numbers on Utah campuses. 

Brigham Young University Nursing professor Dr. Julie Valentine said under Title IX, professors, staff and others on campus are “mandatory reporters,” unless otherwise designated. She said BYU’s reporting rates have quadrupled since enacting an amnesty clause in the way the school handles allegations of sexual assault. 

“If this bill passes,” Valentine said, “this will have a chilling effect on reporting of campus sexual assaults because it takes power away from victims.” 

Still, Coleman argued it was vital for campuses to know they can report incidents, despite confidentiality agreements, to off-campus police; H.B. 254 states institutions can take that course of action if “the information in the covered allegation creates an articulable and significant threat to campus safety at the institution.”

The bill outlines what factors can be considered to determine such a threat, including “the circumstances that suggest an increased risk that the alleged perpetrator will commit an additional act of sexual violence or other violence.”

Other factors include the age of the alleged victim, the arrest history of the alleged perpetrator, threats made, number of suspects and whether the alleged sex assault was committed with a weapon.

Under the bill, the institution that reports to off-campus law enforcement would have to tell the alleged victim of that report within 24 hours of making it. 

Two Democratic members, Rep. Brian King of Salt Lake City and Rep. Mark Wheatley of Murray. opposed the measure. Both argued they would rather see victims empowered to choose whether law enforcement gets involved, than have their wishes of confidentiality undermined. 

Some victim advocates expressed support for the bill, including Attorney and sex assault survivor Kelsey Eisenberg. 

“There are circumstances under which the anonymity of a student needs to be outweighed by the risk a perpetrator poses to the community,” Eisenberg told lawmakers. 

One rape survivor was particularly angered when the measure passed in committee 8-2. She is Terry Mitchell, who said she was sexually assaulted at age 16, shortly after witnessing the murders of her friends. 

She said ignoring victim confidentiality is why so many survivors of sexual assault choose not to report. 

“There is a ‘good old boy’ network that runs through these things,” said Mitchell, referring to the judicial system. “That stop victims from coming forward.” 

H.B. 254 will now be sent to the House Floor for a vote. 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kelsey Eisenberg opposed H.B. 254. The change has been made to reflect she spoke in favor of the bill. 

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 Glen is honored to be delivering the news of the day every weeknight at 5, 6, and 10 in his home state. He is an award-winning veteran journalist, who joined the ABC4 News team as a weekend anchor in June 2013. Over the years, he held various positions at the station as he worked his way up to the main anchor chair. He also serves as our Senior Political Correspondent and hosts Inside Utah Politics, which airs every Sunday. The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has recognized Glen as the best government and military television reporter in the state. Before returning home to Utah, he spent 11 1/2 years developing his journalism skills in other states. He held various on-air and management positions at KPVI in Pocatello, Idaho, WGBA in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and KKCO in Grand Junction, Colorado during that time. Read More...