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Marco Rubio spokesman answers questions on campus sexual assault bill

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Marco Rubio,Ashe Schow,Due Process

A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s office responded to the Washington Examiner's questions regarding a bill the Florida Republican is co-sponsoring that’s supposed to combat sexual assaults at the nation’s colleges and universities.

The questions and answers are posted verbatim from an e-mail with Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.

Examiner: What protections will be in place to make sure the annually reported statistics won’t lead to more convictions based on political correctness?

Conant: Statistics are already reported, we are working to make sure that statistics are more accurate and provide more useful information.

Sexual assault ruins lives. So does wrongful convictions. Better training of university staff and the closer partnerships with local law enforcement, both of which are required by this bill, should improve how these cases are investigated and prosecuted.

Examiner: How will the student surveys solve the problem, instead of being used for political purposes?

Conant: No single bill will solve the problem of campus sexual assault. And many of the answers are not found in legislation, but must be found in changes to the culture. We cannot begin to make progress, however, until we understand the scope of the problem. We cannot solve a problem with our eyes closed.

Examiner: Who will have more authority, the colleges or local law enforcement? So will local authorities be treating accusations of sexual assault as crimes and take over investigations for colleges, or will colleges only have to coordinate with police for certain situations? And what would those situations be?

Conant: The victim will have the most authority. Sexual violence is a serious crime, not a mere campus disciplinary matter. In Sen. Rubio’s view, serious crimes are best pursued by well-trained police forces, not by university personnel operating under confusing and ever conflicting guidance issued by the Department of Education.

However, [Rubio] is mindful of the fact that not all victims are ready to report their assault to the police. This legislation helps give them the means to do so. Every university will have to enter into [memorandum of understanding’s] with local law enforcement so they can work closely together and not conflict.

Every school will offer a confidential adviser to victims. That adviser will inform the victim of all her options, including how to file a criminal complaint and where to find the support necessary to help a victim through that process.

Examiner: Will there be “support services” for the accused? Will there be someone on campus providing them with information on what they can do to provide for their own defense? Will they be informed of their rights, and will those rights be under the law (due process) or under campus rules?

Conant: This bill does not address this issue.

Examiner: Who will pay for campus personnel training? The university? Won’t that increase tuition costs? And what about small colleges that can’t afford the training? Will they be able to pool resources with nearby colleges? With all these protections and services for accusers, why is there nothing pertaining to the accused?

Conant: The bill is mindful of avoiding unnecessary costs on colleges, particularly small ones. Small colleges are permitted to pool resources with nearby schools. Schools also have the option of partnering with nonprofits and victims advocacy organizations who may support these efforts.

Finally, grants are available from [the Department of Justice’s] Office of Violence Against Women specifically for the purpose of training campus personnel to provide services under this bill.

Examiner: Will the government detail a “uniform campus-wide process” for dealing with claims of sexual assault?

Conant: This bill provides a uniform baseline for victim services, information and empowerment. The next step is largely up to the victim. Under this bill, she will have the choice of pursing [sic] criminal charges or campus disciplinary charges.

This bill does not mandate a one-size-fits-all process for campus discipline, but it does require that every school applies its own rules uniformly to its students. No longer can schools offer special discipline procedures for favored students or groups.

Examiner: Will this bill do anything for the accused by way of allowing them to defend themselves? Will the accused be able to obtain counsel or cross-examine the accuser? Why doesn’t this bill ensure all campuses allow the same defense procedures for the accused?

Conant: Of course the accused has all those rights in criminal procedures and, in general, Sen. Rubio believes more of these cases should be handled in that arena. This bill does not address how schools handle internal disciplinary matters other than to say schools cannot favor a particular class of accused student (athletes or others).

These responses, however, still don't ease my concern that the legislation does not address due process rights for the accused.

This bill only addresses one side of the equation — the accusers, and it is clearly skewed in favor of them, as Conant’s answers show (using the word “victim” rather than accuser).

That’s not to say that there is nothing good in this bill — there is. Any step toward moving rape accusations out of the hands of college administrators and into the hands of those with specific training on the issue and the law is a good thing.

But ignoring the rights of the accused will only cause more problems. A “one-size-fits-all process” for handling claims of sexual assault is probably not the answer, but there are some things that every campus should be required to do, such as allowing cross-examination, witness testimony and the right to legal counsel.

Until the due process rights of the accused are considered, any bill to combat sexual assault will just institutionalize the “guilty until proven innocent” mindset and will lead to far more lawsuits against colleges by men who believe they were wrongly accused.

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