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KUNC is a member of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Bill To Unify Sexual Assault Reporting On Colorado Campuses Defeated

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0

A bi-partisan measure that would have updated and clarified how public and private colleges and universities address campus sexual assault failed in the Senate Appropriations Committee along party lines on Tuesday.  It had already passed in the Democratic-controlled House and cleared another Senate committee.

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, R-Thornton, was the main Senate sponsor.

"It was disappointing, but it was also frustrating," she said.

Her fellow Republicans struck down House Bill 1391. An earlier GOP committee had made changes to the measure that ran afoul of the coalition backing the bill.

"Parents are very concerned about when they send their kids to college or universities," said Humenik. "We want them to have confidence that when they send their child, even though it’s a young adult, they’re going to be safe when they’re there."

Advocates of the bill said one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Former Fort Collins resident Jess Davidson and graduate of the University of Denver was one of them. Three years ago, she said a friend who had lived in her dorm freshman year raped her off campus.

"I spent the last six weeks of my senior year of college experiencing so much anxiety having to be on the same campus as my rapist that I would leave the library to vomit when I would see him, and I was just doing my senior thesis."

After reporting it, Davidson said she wasn’t told what the timeline would be for her case and didn’t understand when it was delayed. HB 1391 would have addressed that by requiring schools to be more transparent about the process.

"Because of the time of year that I reported, that 32-day delay resulted in my assailant being found guilty after graduation and being allowed to walk away with his degree. Expulsion after graduation is just graduation," said Davidson.

The Senate Judiciary Committee added several amendments during a hearing last week. One would have increased the standard of evidence to clear and convincing, instead of a preponderance of evidence, if a school chose to have the same person or office gather evidence, prosecute cases and determine disciplinary action.

Rep. Lang Sias, R, Arvada, worked on the amendment before it reached the Senate.

"Any time that you have one individual or office or entity that is responsible for all three functions you must worry because if there is bias, either an individual or institutional. I think you have to worry so that’s one of the concerns," said Sias.

Another concern was  the role an attorney plays in civil procedures. A change was made to add active counsel.

"Right now, that advisor or lawyer can’t participate the inquiry and is essentially a potted plant [in the room]. I think any parent in that situation — whether their child is the victim or accused — they want the representing attorney to participate," said Sias.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, chairs the judiciary committee and added the changes. He wanted to see a civil process that is more like the court system, even if it is expensive. He said he understands the concerns about adding legal representation.

"That if there is a full-blown defense attorney and full blown cross examination then victims will be intimidated, victims will be subjected to mistreatment. Some of that needs to be the responsibility of the fact finder to make sure that doesn’t happen," said Gardner.

A coalition of victim advocates and universities that worked on the original bill for months didn’t support Gardner’s changes.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee gutted the heart and soul of this bill to do the exact opposite of what stakeholders intended and agreed upon, said Raana Simmons, the head of policy for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "They would have created sex discrimination in a bill designed to prevent it by effectively codifying victim-blaming, and creating barriers to access, fairness and support services for survivors."

Advocates said they had the votes on the Senate floor to strip off the changes and bring the bill back to its original form. Martinez Humenik said she wouldn’t have backed the new version of the bill either.

"Because the coalition I worked with would not be in support," she said. "We didn’t know about those amendments until we went into committee. They didn’t have time to really vet them. I think if we had a little more time things might have turned out differently. I don’t know."

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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