A serial predator on campus could prompt colleges to go to the cops under new bill

Posted at 3:40 PM, Feb 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-15 21:58:36-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- If a Utah college or university learns that it may have a serial predator on campus, it can go to the police to launch an investigation.

The bill in the Utah State Legislature has drawn mixed reaction from victim advocates and rape survivors, but passed out of a House committee on Thursday.

Students protest at Brigham Young University over sexual assault victims being investigated for potential Honor Code violations in 2016. (FOX 13 file image)

"No victim should go to law enforcement and report the crime against them and find out the school knew about this all along," said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, who is sponsoring House Bill 254.

Rep. Coleman told FOX 13 she is running the bill partly in response to incidents at Utah State University and Brigham Young University. At USU, Victoria Hewlett reported her assault by Jason Relopez, only to find that the Logan school knew of at least five other victims. She is in the midst of a lawsuit against USU and her attorney, Jeffrey Eisenberg, testified in support of Rep. Coleman's bill.

"It was confirmed this individual was perceived as a threat to the campus. So why didn’t anything happen?" he told the House Judiciary Committee.

FOX 13 does not typically name sexual assault victims, but Hewlett has spoken publicly about her assault.

Rep. Coleman said she is trying to respect victim confidentiality, but also trying to prevent more sexual assaults.

"No woman should ever go to the police after a brutal rape and find out that the institution knew about five other victims before her and did nothing to prevent her rape. EVER," she said. "That should not happen. That should produce outrage."

Students protest at Brigham Young University over sexual assault victims being investigated for potential Honor Code violations in 2016. (FOX 13 file image)

HB254 also includes an amnesty provision that blocks a school from taking action against a sex assault victim for violating their code of conduct, an apparent response to incidents where BYU had taken action against women who reported their assaults for potential Honor Code violations.

However, victim advocates feared the overall bill could prevent more people from coming forward to report sexual assaults.

"I am very much against this bill. I believe this bill goes against trauma-informed principles," said Dr. Julie Valentine, an associate professor at BYU.

Mara Haight of the Rape Recovery Center said they need to encourage women to seek help, but going to the cops may not be the best solution.

"For many victims, that fear of losing control automatically is going to stop them. Even if it’s a sliver of a chance, 'OK I’m not going to go forward,'" she told the committee.

That testimony prompted Democrats on the committee to vote against the bill, but it passed out of committee on an 8-2 vote. Republicans argued that with only one in 30 reporting campus sexual assaults, the status quo was not working.

"When crimes are appropriately addressed, appropriately addressed, appropriately investigated, adjudicated and penalized, that brings more victims forward," Rep. Coleman said.