California tells colleges to quickly respond to sex assaults

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — California law enforcement and education leaders on Wednesday directed colleges to quickly notify authorities when a sexual assault is reported on campus, following criticism that incidents were being hidden by universities and not investigated thoroughly.

Attorney General Kamala Harris and University of California president Janet Napolitano released a template outlining cooperation between campuses and law enforcement agencies mandated under a state law passed last year.

The model guidelines include requiring agencies to test rape kits; better coordinate interviews so victims don't have to recount a traumatic experience multiple times; and make sure students are informed of their right to file a report — or not to.

"Part of the work we have done is to acknowledge that there are silos in our system," Harris said. "And we need to break through those."

The guidelines came amid ongoing scrutiny over the handling of sexual assault cases on U.S. campuses.

The new measure is one of several aimed at improving university and law enforcement responses to sexual offenses in California. It requires that a victim's name be withheld unless they give consent.

In a separate law, California became the first state to define when "yes means yes," requiring an "affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement" to engage in sexual activity.

California is one of the only states requiring colleges to contact law enforcement in a sex assault case.

Federal lawmakers introduced a similar measure last year requiring all colleges and universities to have an agreement in place with local law enforcement, but that bill has failed to advance in Congress. Critics contend that approach contradicts existing federal statutes allowing sexual assault victims to decide whether law enforcement should be notified.

Some activists believe concerns about preserving victim discretion were sufficiently allayed in California by allowing a victim to remain anonymous when law enforcement is notified. Others expressed concern about how anonymous cases would be handled.

"I don't know what they expect law enforcement to do with it when they get it except keep a file that describes an incident," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.

She added that even if an incident doesn't provide a name it could still potentially contain identifying information.

Reports of sex offenses on college campuses provided to the U.S. Department of Education nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013 — a rise department officials attribute to increased federal enforcement and growing public attention. Napolitano said reports at UC campuses have also increased, but she did not know if that meant incidents had as well.

Law enforcement and education leaders say sex crimes frequently go underreported.

As of Wednesday, there were 121 sexual violence cases at 111 campuses under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, including 12 California colleges and universities.

California schools have until July 1st to enact policies ensuring law enforcement is notified.

Napolitano said all UC campuses would adopt the memorandum. She described the university's previous response system as "very episodic."

"Different campuses had different things," she said. "And quite frankly students at different campuses received different levels of services."

The model memorandum requires schools, local authorities, rape crisis centers and medical facilities to identify a central contact at each agency.

If a student chooses not to file a report with authorities, the document recommends contacting her or him again within 48 hours and making the student aware a case can be reopened on request. Students should be informed that they are entitled to a forensic exam at no cost and regardless of whether they want to pursue charges.

Caroline Heldman, a professor at Occidental College and co-founder of the campus group Faculty Against Rape, said the memorandum is a positive step, but the key to preventing future assaults is making sure students who commit a sexual assault are adequately disciplined.

"I don't think we'll see the change we need until we start treating this with more serious penalties," she said.


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