County Executive Rob Astorino’s Plan to Protect College Students from Sexual Violence Does More Harm than Good

Commentary by Lisa Hofflich, President of the Westchester Chapter of the National Organization for Women

“All too often we see good intentions gone awry.” These were County Executive Rob Astorino’s words criticizing Governor Cuomo’s legislation to expand SUNY’s sexual assault policies to all colleges – public and private – throughout New York. Mr. Astorino then unveiled his own four-point proposal to crack down on campus sexual violence.  But the reality is, while his strategy is well intentioned, the plan is problematic, misguided, and could cause great harm to students, rather than protect them.

Mr. Astorino’s policy would require college employees to immediately turn over student records of rape or sexual assault to law enforcement, with or without the victim’s consent. This mandatory reporting would force survivors into a criminal justice system that so often fails victims of sexual violence.

Rape and sexual assault are already the most under-reported crimes in the country.  However, when they are reported, only one quarter of them lead to arrest, a fifth to prosecution, at which half of those actually result in felony convictions.  For many survivors, the fear of reporting their cases to police — only to have them ultimately dismissed, and then become targets of potentially dangerous retaliation themselves – is very real.  Survivors also point out that when they do report their attacks, they are often met with skepticism from the criminal justice system.  Many are also reluctant to put themselves through re-traumatizing investigations and trials that could take years to resolve.

Schools, on the other hand, are required under Title IX of the federal civil rights law to take up every student complaint for investigation and adjudication.  National outcry from angry student activists and government reports have highlighted colleges failing to live up to their obligations under Title IX.  However, dependency on a criminal justice system that historically shortchanges survivors should not be used in place of much-needed substantive reforms to schools’ policies.

By tying a school’s response to police action, many survivors may decide not to report at all, creating an even more dangerous playing field for perpetrators who can go on to attack other victims because they have not been identified or caught.  Schools will also not have received the information they need to put safety action plans in place to protect their communities.

Victims of any assault need to feel control over their bodies – and the power to make their own decisions.  By stripping away the ability to decide how to proceed, by forcing a police report without their consent, this loss of control is perpetuated, thereby adding to further trauma.

Mr. Astorino’s mandatory reporting proposal also enables discriminatory attitudes towards gender-based violence victims in direct contrast to the purpose of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded activities, including schools.  His plan infantilizes victims of rape and sexual assault, most of whom are women and girls, by implying that the system “knows what is best” for them.  Mandatory reporting is the norm for protecting children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities from abuse.  However, an adult female student victim is just as capable of reporting violence against herself as an adult male student who experiences mugging or another adult non-student victim of violence, neither of whose report would be mandatorily furnished to police.

Mr. Astorino’s other proposals to add an independent victims’ advocate to shepherd them through the aftermath of their ordeal, the police sensitivity training to build trust and cooperation with survivors, and most points of the Victims’ Bill of Rights – minus the compulsory criminal investigation — are commendable. However, his solution to rid college campuses of violent offenders and keep the communities safe will not work as long as mandatory reporting requirements are included in it.

Instead, better solutions include calling for tougher enforcement of schools’ Title IX obligations; providing multiple reporting options allowing survivors to feel more comfortable in coming forward to willingly report their own cases;  and passing consent education requirements for middle and high school students.

Survivors, students, and advocates across the country have been shouting that mandatory reporting laws do not work in the college scenario.  Mr. Astorino says he wants to protect students and support survivors – he should listen to what they are saying.