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What you need to know about House Bill 51

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Emily Thompson, Contributing Writer

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What is it?

Georgia House Bill 51 is a bill that requires employees of universities to report suspected felonies to campus or local law enforcement. In addition, it limits a university’s ability to investigate such cases and forbids many disciplinary responses until thorough investigations and due process are provided to the alleged perpetrator.

This bill has passed through the Georgia House of Representatives with 115 favorable and 55 unfavorable votes. The bill is currently in the Georgia Senate.

Who proposed it?

Earl Ehrhart is a Georgia House representative from District 36, an area of western Cobb County near Powder Springs.  Ehrhart, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 1980, serves on the Higher Education committee within the House. Interestingly enough, there are absolutely no universities within District 36, so it is important to note that this bill will not directly affect his constituency.  According to his biography, Ehrhart has two sons. One of them is in high school, and the other is an officer in the military. This being said, Mr. Ehrhart is unlikely to ever personally face the circumstances that this bill addresses with any immediate family member.

There have been concerns with Ehrhart’s approach to this issue, especially regarding his curtness when addressing opposition.  For example, a supporter of the bill presented the grossly incorrect statistic that 40% of rape allegations were false.  In fact, the estimation is generally at 8% or less, which is comparable to other crimes.  Citizens immediately objected to this falsehood.  Representative Ehrhart responded that if they were going to be triggered in this “macro-aggressive environment,” then they should “go trigger somewhere else.”

Even still, Mr. Ehrhart has decided that this bill must be implemented.

What brought this about?

Earl Ehrhart developed an unrelenting zeal for due process after an incident at Georgia Tech last year. A female student claimed that a fraternity yelled racial slurs at her while she walked by their fraternity house. However, several parts of her story did not align. Even without evidence, Tech decided to put the fraternity on suspension for a semester without a chance for appeal. As a result of this, Ehrhart, who is also a member of the committee that provides Tech funding, threatened to reduce the public university’s state funding.

This episode was paired with another incident that concerned Ehrhart. A student, who had been expelled from Tech for sexual misconduct, had recently been cleared of charges by the state Board of Regents. The student was reinstated to the institution. Following these events, Representative Ehrhart stated that “[his] concern is due process.”  He has expressed concern about how universities handle rape allegations as students have “had college educations taken away from them because of a campus proceeding.  Ehrhard believes these serious allegations should only be handled by law enforcement because universities do not provide as much defense for the accused as the legal process.

What are the problems?

This bill has many problems that will prove to be destructive in the future. While due process is certainly important, with the way the bill is framed, the rights of victims and university judicial boards are overshadowed. A holistic list of the apprehensions contained within this bill would take pages of writing. However, here are five of the most pressing concerns.

Use of the word “felony.”

House Bill 51 requires university employees to report cases of suspected felonies to local or campus law enforcement. This may seem positive, but in practice, this will prove to be problematic.

First of all, much of the general population is unaware of what constitutes a felony. Thus, it is almost guaranteed that crimes will be misreported or go unreported. Additionally, although this bill intends to focus on cases of sexual violence, sexual battery is classified as a misdemeanor in Georgia and would not fall under the bill.

Meanwhile, felonies such as taking another’s Adderall or possessing more than an ounce of marijuana would fall under this bill. As of now, at universities like Mercer, these incidents would be corrected internally to protect and support students. However, with the passage of this bill, these cases would mandatorily be forwarded to police.

Use of the phrase “due process.”

According to this bill, the accused are to receive due process before the university can discipline a student or implement measures to protect the victim. Due process is a legal term, which is presented to the American people in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

In essence, due process guarantees that the government will provide certain rights to individuals if that individual is to ever be deprived of life, liberty, or property. However, this provision does not extend beyond the government. Yet, this bill extends the right to due process to both public and private universities without defining how nongovernment entities are to implement due process. Thus, the university’s hands are bound until they implement a new process for which they are given no guidelines.

Compromising universities’ provisions to survivors.

Interim measures are steps taken under Title IX to ensure the safety of survivors after an assault. This may be moving the accused from a class or dormitory, or it may be providing a campus police escort to a survivor when passing through certain parts of campus.

Interim measures are necessary to the healing of many survivors. Interim measures encourage survivors to stay in school by providing protection and reduced contact with the accused when the survivor is most vulnerable. Currently, universities may provide these types of accommodations at their discretion. The bill, however, only permits universities to implement interim measures if and after due process is provided.

Impact on survivors.

Reporting rates of sexual violence are very low. By forcing those who report to the school to file a police report, we are discouraging survivors from reporting. Survivors experience a trauma where all bodily control was demolished. The least we can do is provide them control over where their story goes.

Currently, survivors can file reports with the university. This report may lead to judicial action. However, it could also lead to university awareness of a situation with absolutely no action taken. With House Bill 51, though, these reports would automatically be forwarded to police and likely be put into public record.

Student employees.

Finally, this bill gives no exemption for student employees. According to this bill, responsible employees, who must report incidents to the police, include almost every member of faculty and administration. In addition, it also includes any student employee with a supervisory role in the university. Thus, many students who are presented with the stories of friends and survivors become mandatory reporters. They will be forced to exploit and divulge the stories of their friends as a result of this bill. This substantially limits who survivors will feel safe talking to.

House Bill 51 is a very dangerous piece of legislation. It may have been created with good intentions. However, it has devolved into a bill that protects dangerous people and abuses, or at the least, doesn’t protect our most vulnerable. If we desire justice, this is not the way for justice to occur.

 

I encourage you to do two things. First, tell others about this bill and raise awareness for the issue. Secondly, call your state senator and discourage them from voting for House Bill 51. Together, we can make Georgia a safe place for all.

 

Resources

Erhart’s Biography and Committee Information:

http://www.house.ga.gov/Documents/Biographies/ehrhartEarl.pdf

http://www.house.ga.gov/representatives/en-US/member.aspx?Member=97&Session=24

Fraternity at Georgia Tech Story:

http://politics.blog.ajc.com/2016/01/23/a-georgia-tech-fraternity-fight-spills-into-the-state-capitol/

Tech Student’s Expulsion:

http://www.myajc.com/news/local/wrongly-accused-rape-students-question-their-expulsions-from-tech/BBvnT55EBWtaCHbhunSxON/

HB51 Text:

http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/en-US/display/20172018/HB/51

Georgia Drug Possession Laws:

https://www.hg.org/article.asp?id=24521

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What you need to know about House Bill 51