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New chance for Georgia bill on campus sex-assault hearings

January 9, 2018

ATLANTA (AP) — A stalled proposal to impose new rules and limits on how Georgia colleges handle sexual violence cases was given a new chance Tuesday in the legislature, though the measure’s author said he no longer sees a pressing need for it.

On the second day of the 2018 session, the state Senate voted without debate to move House Bill 51 to a new committee after the Senate Judiciary Committee left it in legislative limbo without a vote last year.

The measure’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, said last year that safeguards were needed to prevent campus disciplinary proceedings from tarnishing the reputations of students accused of rapes and assaults while denying them due process.

Opponents argued Ehrhart’s bill would discourage some victims from seeking help on campus by requiring schools to report felonies, including sexual assaults, to police. It would also prevent schools from disciplining, suspending or expelling a student for actions that are under criminal investigation without a hearing affording undefined “due process protections.”

Ehrhart said Tuesday that most of what he hoped to accomplish has been adopted in recent months by other federal and state agencies. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last fall scrapped federal rules created under President Barack Obama and replaced them with interim guidance allowing schools to use a higher standard of evidence for reviewing complaints than the previous rules allowed.

And in August the Board of Regents, which governs Georgia’s public universities, enacted new policies giving the state University System greater oversight of disciplinary cases that may result in suspension or expulsion.

“I don’t know that there’s a pressing need” for legislation, Ehrhart said, though he stopped short of saying he plans to drop the issue. “It is a live bill until the end of this session. But as of this moment, I’m not going to ask the committee for a hearing.”

Ehrhart said he was told the Senate moved his bill to the Senate Higher Education Committee because it has a lighter workload than the Judiciary Committee, where it became bogged down after the House passed it last year.

Grace Starling, a Georgia State University law student who has organized fellow students bidding to defeat the proposal, said she plans to watch closely.

“The biggest concern has always been the mandatory reporting” to police, Starling said. “It would create a less safe campus environment because it would chill reporting. Students would be less willing to come forward.”

Before the House voted last March, Ehrhart said students facing campus disciplinary proceedings for sex crimes faced having “a scarlet letter branded on your forehead,” making it difficult for them to finish degrees and find jobs.

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