Sen. Saslaw: Campus Rape Bill ‘Not As Strong as I Would Like’

(Photo: News-Press)
(Photo: News-Press)

It was not as strong as Falls Church’s State Sen. Dick Saslaw wanted, but a modified bill to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses sailed unanimously through the Virginia Senate Tuesday, and is expected to fare just as well in the House of Delegates.

A video of Saslaw’s angry comments before the Falls Church City Council in December went “viral” statewide in the wake of the explosive article in Rolling Stone magazine about a rape at the University of Virginia, as he vowed to introduce legislation that would require the university to report such an incident to local police within 24 hours, with stiff criminal penalties if avoided.

Saslaw, a highly-respected veteran legislator the head of the Democrats in the State Senate, launched into his heated comments as a father who had a daughter who graduated from U-Va. His daughter, he said, told him that it was well known on the campus that cover ups of such rape incidents by university officials were common. He said officials urged students not to go the police, and even tried to smooth over incidents by putting the perpetrator and victim in the same counseling session.

The subsequent questions raised about the veracity of the reported Rolling Stone incident muted some voices, but not Saslaw’s. At a town hall meeting at the Falls Church Community Center last month, he reiterated his outrage, having submitted the legislation that he’d promised. He said there were many elements of the Rolling Stone article that were not in dispute, including the admission by the university that it did not take stronger steps against an alleged male student rapist, accused in two rape incidents, because it feared legal retaliation, and readmitted the student after a year suspension to eventually graduate.

“He should not have been allowed to walk across that stage to accept a diploma, he should be serving 50 years in prison,” Saslaw intoned.
On the other hand, however, the concern was expressed that forcing the university to take all cases to the police would only heighten the reluctance of a rape victim to report to anyone at all.

Saslaw did not concur with that argument, but when Democratic State Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington came up with an alternate version of Saslaw’s bill, and got Republican Sen. Tom Garrett (Buckingham) and Democrat Sen. Adam Ebbin (Alexandria) to sign onto it, Saslaw had little choice but to join them.

Still, at a town hall meeting in Sleepy Hollow last Saturday, Saslaw said he was not happy with the Favola bill because it did “not wind up as strong as I would like,” and passionately reiterating his concerns drew the strongest applause on more than one occasion from a crowd of 150 at the Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.

So on Tuesday, the State Senate voted unanimously to pass SB-1329, which, according to a Favola press release, “seeks to address the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses by requiring universities to create memorandums of understanding with local sexual assault crisis centers and to provide survivors with access to other community resources.”

Favola stated, according to the release, “This legislation represents a positive step in protecting our young people and making college campuses safer. It strengthens support systems for sexual assault survivors and empowers these survivors to pursue charges against their assailants.”

Under SB 1329, according to Favola, “the universities must provide the sexual assault survivor with an explanation of options for counseling and different disciplinary and law-enforcement investigations that the survivor may initiate. The bill also requires that universities adopt policies addressing nonretaliation for survivors who fear their conduct related to the incident may also be questioned or who are concerned that an official report might jeopardize their academic status.”

On the House of Delegates side Wednesday, a number of bills to aid victims of sexual assault and to protect students on college campuses. Delegates unanimously approved House Bill 1785, introduced by Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico. It would require campus police to notify the local commonwealth’s attorney of a victim-initiated investigation of a sexual assault case within 48 hours. Massie said HB 1785 would foster better coordination among law enforcement agencies in investigating sexual assaults on campus. On a 97-3 vote, the House also passed HB 1930, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. It would require “any responsible employee of a public or private nonprofit institution of higher education” to report to the institution’s Title IX coordinator any act of sexual violence committed against a student or on campus property.” All cases would be confidentially reviewed by a team that includes law enforcement. Moreover, the bill would require colleges to provide counseling services to victims and to inform them of all their legal options. On a 72-27 vote, the House approved HB 1928, also introduced by Bell. It would add certain misdemeanors, such as stalking and indecent exposure, to the list of offenses for which a convicted adult must provide a DNA sample. The sample would go into a DNA databank that police can search when investigating crimes.

Last Saturday, Saslaw and State Sen. Dave Marsden joined State Del. Kaye Kory before a full house of constituents for a Richmond legislative update at the Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in greater Falls Church Saturday morning.

The lawmakers answered a battery of questions as the State Legislature prepared to go into its “crossover” mode on last Tuesday, when bills approved by either the senate or house get transferred over to the other for action.

A contingent from the state’s 5,600 taxicab operators was on hand, as they have been actively lobbying the legislature to advocate for the same regulatory requirements for the new Uber car service as applies to them. All three legislators last Saturday were in agreement with their concerns.
Saslaw reported that a push among arch-conservatives, part of a new national movement, to call for a new U.S. constitutional convention wound up being withdrawn as conservatives began fighting among themselves about what a potential outcome might be should they succeed. “If it happens, you’re not going to get any Madisons, or Jeffersons or Monroes to rewrite out constitution”, he said. “There will be every nut job in America on the right and on the left. They are the ones who will rewrite it.”

The overall budget legislation that will be introduced next week will have no cuts in public school or higher education funding, the lawmakers said.
Saslaw also announced that there will a repaving by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) of the entire length of Annandale Road, which is in the category of “worst, in most need of repair” by VDOT, in this year and the next.

Marsden said it is very important that this year the legislature has designated solar power development as “in the public interest.” He also said that, while no formal legislation was passed, he led the effort to bring the issue of brain injuries in sports to the head of the Virginia High School League who in turn voluntarily established a new policy limiting the amount of time a teenager can practice a contact sport.