Georgia University system changes oversight of sexual assault, concerning advocates

Advocates are worried about such a quick change right before the semester begins.

Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, right, testifies on his bill overhauling colleges' disciplinary hearings on sexual violence. CREDIT: AP/David Goldman)
Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, right, testifies on his bill overhauling colleges' disciplinary hearings on sexual violence. CREDIT: AP/David Goldman)

On Tuesday, Georgia’s higher education board decided to approve new sexual misconduct policies that would change how the University System of Georgia oversees campus sexual assault allegations, Inside Higher Education reported.

The new policies would allow the university system’s central office to have more oversight over these allegations and in many cases, would take responsibility from the campuses themselves to adjudicate allegations of campus rape. In some cases, the rules would go against the Obama administration’s 2011 Title IX guidance, which clarified how universities should handle campus rape investigations. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not vowed to keep Title IX guidance in place and has met with a Georgia lawmaker, Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R), who opposes the guidance and has called investigations of campus rape “kangaroo courts.”

Under the new rules, the office of the associate vice chancellor, Kimberly Ballard-Washington, will ultimately decide if the central office or campus would direct an investigation into sexual assault allegations that may result in suspensions or expulsions. Investigations may also take longer than 60 days in some cases, going against the 2011 Title IX guidance.

These policies will be implemented over the next couple weeks, Inside Higher Education reported. But to do so within such a quick time frame would be reckless, say some advocates for sexual assault survivors. Alexandra Brodsky, fellow at National Women’s Law Center and co-founder of Know Your IX, a group that educates students on their rights under Title IX, said it is “really irresponsible” to roll out the policy so quickly.


“It’s hard to know what this is going to look like because we don’t even have a policy yet in full and it is mind boggling that they want to roll this out in 20 days,” Brodsky said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “That doesn’t give enough time for schools to implement these policies. It clearly is a rushed process and that is really worrisome. We are right to worry that will be unintended and unpublicized consequences to this policy.”

Advocates have long warned of a “red zone” for students, starting from the beginning of freshman year to Thanksgiving break, when students are at increased risk for sexual assault. The rollout of the policy coincides with that particularly vulnerable period at the beginning of the semester.

The Tuesday decision also shows that although Ehrhart’s bill failed, his influence on campus rape policies has not. Groups representing sexual assault survivors rejoiced when his proposed House Bill 51, a bill that required mandatory reporting to police of campus sexual assault and limited how universities could discipline accused students, died in April. Advocates for sexual assault survivors said that this mandatory reporting would make it less likely for sexual assault survivors to report to their university and have their university address their needs on campus.

Brodsky said survivors need to have the ability to come forward without also providing details to the police because there are different reasons for reporting to the police versus reporting to a university, which makes sure that the school is safe and that students are able to learn. “Sometimes it includes discipline, but it also includes mental health support and delay a test the day after he or she was assaulted, dorm room changes, and that kind of thing,” Brodsky said. “The school is uniquely positioned to provide those kind of accommodations. The police just cannot get you an extension on your paper.”

She added that undocumented communities and communities of color in particular may not feel safe reporting to the police and that different survivors want to pursue different paths after their sexual assaults.


But university system staff used proposed language for the policies referred to Ehrhart’s bill in talking points, according to documents obtained by Inside Higher Education through a state records request. Although the language did not mention mandatory reporting, the document appeared to refer to the guidance. It read, “The current direction is to treat the sexual-misconduct cases in a manner similar to pre-2011 — allowing the campus to address misconduct issues and protect the parties and address any possible dangers to campus.”

The reference to 2011 guidance on sexual assault suggests that these policies are another way for university officials to get around Obama-era guidance on campus rape investigations, which requires schools to have an established internal procedure on how to handle campus rape allegations and requires that the school must promptly investigate complaints.

To make matters worse, Ehrhart and university system officials may have a sympathetic ear at the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos not only met with Ehrhart shortly after he appeared to mock sexual assault survivors, by telling them to “trigger somewhere else” during debate on HB 51, but has met with groups hostile to the rights of sexual assault survivors and domestic abuse victims. The department’s head of the office of civil rights, Candace Jackson, recently told The New York Times that most campus sexual assault accusations were the result of a drunken sex and breakups, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support her statement.

No matter what the university system or Georgia legislature does, survivors still have protections under Title IX, Brodsky said, but she is still looking our for laws that may disempower sexual assault survivors, such as those on mandatory reporting.

“All of those bills failed to date, but we are still on high alert,” Brodsky said.