Bill that would require colleges to create a sexual assault action plan advances

Rep. James Sturch
Rep. James Sturch

A bill that would require the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board to create an action plan for addressing sexual assault on college campuses advanced out of the House Education committee on Thursday on a voice vote with no dissent.

The purpose of the action plan would be to raise college student awareness of sexual assaults. State colleges and universities would be asked to incorporate sexual assault prevention, education and resources into class programs and freshman orientations. They would then report to the board the steps they took to meet the requirements of the action plan.

Rep. James Sturch (R-Batesville), lead sponsor of House Bill 1518, said, “The whole part of an action plan is just that: to have action to combat sexual assault and to bring some awareness to the issue. … We want [Arkansas colleges and universities] to be more proactive, and not always reactive, to situations on college campuses.”

Colleges and universities that receive federal funding must adhere to certain federal regulations concerning campus sexual violence. Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prohibits discrimination in housing, athletics and access to facilities on the basis of a student’s gender or sexual orientation. Under the Clery Act of 1990, colleges and universities are required to investigate and report instances of sexual assault, as well as other crimes that occur on their campuses. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, passed in 2013, sets standards for disciplinary proceedings for accusations of sexual assault.

Sturch’s bill would require state colleges and universities to share their federal reports on campus sexual assaults with the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the state legislature.

Sturch said that, as one of the younger members of the House, he brings important insight to the issue of campus sexual assault.

“Kids my age do not quite understand what the law really says about what is sexual assault, what is rape, and what the legal consequences are. And it’s not any fault of their own. It’s just that they’re not getting much when they’re just handed a pamphlet.”

According to the bill, one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 American men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape; women and girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault; and Arkansas is ranked 47th in the nation in terms of the number of reported forcible rapes in the state.

During the question period, Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) expressed concern that the bill might bolster false claims of sexual assault.

“I have represented persons accused of being Razorback rapists and while I got them off, I was, and still am, sensitive to what happens in a university environment where you have athletes involved,” Walker said.

Sturch assured Walker that the bill focuses on sexual assault education at state colleges and universities, including personal responsibility to report and provide credible evidence, and does not change what defines sexual assault under the law.

Several committee members questioned how the bill would be implemented, particularly with regard to a section that encourages college students to act as mentors for sexual assault education programs at the K-12 level.

Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) said, “Even though I agree that it is something that we do need to educate our children on, I just don’t feel that having college students do that in this context is appropriate.”

 Sturch said he would amend the bill to address this concern. The committee decided to advance the bill with a promise of an amendment.

After the committee adjourned, in an interview Sturch expressed surprise at the pushback on the K-12 mentoring program, which would allow for a flexible, age-appropriate curriculum. “I really think that we can’t start too young. Even at the high school level, I really think that a 19-year-old college girl has more influence on a 17-year-old high school girl than an adult who’s 40 or 50 years old,” he said.

Other committee members wondered if the legislation would be effective at all.

Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) told Sturch, “I appreciate what you’re doing, but I just feel like this [Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating] Board already has an opportunity to do this, and they’ve not done it. And presenting a bill that doesn’t have much teeth to it, I don’t have much faith that they’ll take much action.”

An alumna and a student from the University of Arkansas spoke in favor of the bill.

Kayla Kimball, a recent graduate of University of Arkansas, said her ex-boyfriend repeatedly raped her over the course of their one-year relationship. She says she believes that Sturch’s bill is “a step in the right direction.”

In response to Kimball’s testimony, Walker said, ““I would like to know … what the problem is that allows anyone to submit to repeated rape. I’d just like to know how that happens.”

Kimball responded that the man took over every aspect of her life, including switching to her major and taking the same classes. She said it was only after she left the relationship that she realized his behavior was abusive.

Samantha Baker, a third-year law student at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, also testified. She said she was both a survivor of rape and worked with rape victims on campus.

“Sexual assault awareness does not begin or end in college. But if we can begin to make changes to rape culture such as Bill 1518, then we absolutely must support legislation like this,” she said.

The bill now goes to the full House.

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