RD225 - Pilot Program for a Regional Center for the Investigation of Incidents of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Executive Summary:
Item 146, Paragraph k, Chapter 780, 2016 Acts of Assembly appropriated $100,000 from the general fund to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to study and design a pilot program for a regional center for the investigation of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence at the Commonwealth’s institutions of higher education. SCHEV is to “communicate the pilot design to the Secretaries of Education and Public Safety and Homeland Security and to the Chairs of the House Appropriations and Education and Senate Finance and Education and Health Committees by August 1, 2017.”

Specifically, this legislative charge requires that the pilot program include:

“a partnership between higher education, law enforcement, and state government where criminal incidents of sexual and gender-based violence could be reported directly to the center for independent and neutral investigation. The center would be staffed with trauma-informed investigators who would coordinate with both colleges and universities and law enforcement to carry out the investigative responsibilities outlined by Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act. The program design shall include start-up and operational costs, staffing needs, sample memorandum of understanding between higher education institutions, law enforcement and Commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices, any legislative requirements, and a model for long-term shared financial support. The center’s scope would apply only to allegations of criminal behavior.”

All institutions of higher education that receive federal funds are obligated to “provide a safe and nondiscriminatory living, learning, and work environment,” as well as to “prevent sexual and gender-based harassment, interpersonal violence, and to take immediate responsive action when such conduct occurs in connection with the educational institution’s programs or activities.”(*1) Every institution also has the responsibility to enforce its own code of student, faculty and employee conduct, which may include many violations of the criminal code including sexual assault.

While fulfilling these obligations, institutions of higher education are required to investigate and adjudicate sexual and gender-based crimes in accordance with the law, while also supporting victim-complainants, respondents and witnesses, in a timely and fair manner. For many institutions, the financial and staffing burden of Title IX investigations is enormous, but they must comply with federal laws and regulations regardless of resources. Additionally, there can be a “perception of institutional bias, meaning that if and when they do err, they are presumed to have done so to protect the institution.”(*2) This perception can lead to underreporting of sexual violence and additional trauma for victim-complainants. Also, it can expose the Commonwealth and its institutions to a liability and potential lawsuit in every single case it investigates.(*3) Proponents of the consortial regional center model believe it could address issues that arise naturally as institutions of higher education grapple with how to provide competent, fair, and cost-efficient investigations. A consortial approach could be particularly effective for under-resourced institutions of higher education, as they can leverage common resources to reduce costs. However, if the regional center includes large, well-resourced institutions, the large caseloads from these schools could overwhelm the center and perhaps prevent timely investigations.

The pilot program explored here aims to improve communication between law enforcement and educational institutions in order to ensure a fair and timely investigation of sexual and gender-based violence. Among its goals would be the reduction of victim re-traumatization and the improvement of due process for both complainants and respondents by providing a multidisciplinary approach to Title IX investigations.

A pilot center would employ neutral, trauma-informed investigators who would operate with increased cooperation with local law enforcement and institutional advocates to navigate each school’s adjudication process. Additionally, the regional center would aim to reduce the cost to the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities for investigating these incidents by pooling resources. The Commonwealth’s four-year institutions average 40 investigations of criminal incidents of sexual and gender-based violence by a known and affiliated person (such as a student, employee, or faculty member) per institution, per year.(*4) This does not include the total number of investigations for the Commonwealth’s community colleges, which have fewer cases per year but would add to the total investigated by a regional center. The cost of each investigation can be upwards of $30,000, resulting in a potential $16.8 million expenditure every academic year to investigate and adjudicate these cases, not including the potential for litigation expenses.(*5)

Per the legislative requirements, the regional center is to be based on the model of the Children’s Advocacy Center, which implements a multidisciplinary approach to investigating allegations of child abuse.(*6) The Children’s Advocacy Center model is a “child-focused, facility-based program in which representatives from core disciplines — law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical, and victim advocacy — collaborate to investigate child abuse reports, conduct forensic interviews, determine and provide evidence-based interventions, and assess cases for prosecution.”(*7) The Children’s Advocacy Center model works well for minor children who have limited choice due to their status as minors, and whose cases are adjudicated within the criminal codes that protect them. This model does not translate to an institutional setting where the complainants are typically adults operating in a framework governed by an administrative code of conduct, and is led by victim-choice.
(*1) (Gomez & Smith, 2016)
(*2) (Gomez & Smith, 2016)
(*3) (Gomez & Smith, 2016)
(*4) Self-reported by some of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s two- and four-year institutions of higher education for the purposes of this report, however, not all institutions are represented in this figure due to non-response.
(*5) Self-reported by some of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s two- and four-year institutions of higher education for the purposes of this report, however, not all institutions are represented in this figure due to non-response.
(*6) (2016 Virginia Acts of Assembly, 2016)
(*7) (National Children's Alliance, 2017)