HB254: Bill related to university sexual violence reports fails

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Sahalie Donaldson
BYU student Olivia Whiteley reads her letter opposing HB254 at a press conference Monday morning. Whiteley published an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune speaking out against the bill. (Sahalie Donaldson)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill which would have allowed universities to report sexual assault cases to police without the victim’s permission failed Monday amidst heavy opposition, including from BYU students and faculty.

HB254 was tabled Monday morning after the bill’s sponsor Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, failed to make it to the hearing. Since the bill’s introduction, over 50 victim advocate groups including Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, RAIN, Safe Campus LLC and the National Women’s Law Center voiced their opposition.

The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault held a press conference following the hearing to address what is next.

BYU forensic nurse professor Julie Valentine opposed HB254. She has been instrumental in reforming BYU’s Title IX implementation and also serves on national committees developing best practice guidelines for eradicating sexual assault at universities.

“On the surface, House Bill 254 might seem like a good approach to addressing campus sexual violence, but it is not,” Valentine said. “Every victims’ rights organization in Utah and over 50 national campus and victims’ rights organization oppose HB254.” 

According to Valentine, taking the power from victims of reporting their own sexual assault will not encourage others to come forward, and when victims cannot come forward, they are unable to receive the help they need and deserve.

BYU sophomore Olivia Whiteley also testified against the bill after coming across HB254 while researching Utah’s Statute of Limitations.

Upon her discovery, Whiteley immediately wrote a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune which voiced her opposition to the legislation and chronicled some of her experiences being a first responder to her friend’s rape.

Whiteley’s piece was published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the sophomore was asked to testify for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault shortly after.

After reading her statement at the Monday morning press conference, Whiteley said she felt stressed.

“Reliving those experiences and knowing that someone that you really care about has been violated in such an intimate way and been disrespected like that,” Whiteley said. “That physically actually hurts you.”

While Whiteley was glad the bill effectively failed, she was disappointed that Coleman didn’t show up for the hearing. She said she appreciates the intent behind what Coleman is trying to do but, “if you aren’t willing to listen to victims, survivors or advocates it’s not going to help.”

Whiteley said BYU has taken big strides in past years to ensure victim-centered practices are put in place, and she she hopes it will continue to improve.

“We also need men to get involved in learning about consent and participating in consent advocacy or participating in the women’s studies program,” Whiteley said. “Because I feel this is not just about women. It’s a men’s issue since men are usually the ones who are perpetrators of sexual assault. Preventing sexual assault is something everyone should care about.”

As a social worker, victim advocate, college freshman and rape victim, Amy Jo Curtis also opposed the bill.

“I know what’s it like to be a college student and have to deal with the everyday struggle of dealing with those inner demons, and I know what it’s like to advocate for those same people,” Curtis said.

After she returned to school, Curtis said she received university services which helped her feel safe on campus again, but coming forward needed to be on her own terms.

“I didn’t know who to go to or how to talk to anybody. It took me two years to tell anybody and it took me almost three years to tell my parents,” Curtis said. “It needs to be on the victim’s time because if I was pushed it would have completely fallen apart.”

Curtis added that if HB254 had been in place at her university she would never have come forward to university services.

The bill continues to pop up each legislative session, but this time it made it further than before, which deeply concerns Curtis.

“If this bill comes back every year as has happened, it will make it so victims are re-victimized every time it comes up,” Curtis said.

The bill’s main argument is that Title IX doesn’t provide enough protections, but Curtis said she believes it does.

“The Title IX document goes on continuously to reiterate that the trust of the victims and future victims is most important,” Curtis said. “Trauma-informed care sees that validation and empowerment are key when responding to the victim. What’s most important are the victims’ needs.”

Curtis said future victims of rape are watching how universities respond to sexual assault now.

Since BYU changed to trauma-informed practices there has been a 400 percent increase in reported cases, according to Curtis.

“The good thing about BYU and the 400 percent increase of reports is we now know who those rapists are,” Curtis said. “We didn’t before because people didn’t trust the state of the office. Sure, we can’t prosecute them, but campus cops can keep an eye out for them.”

Sahalie Donaldson
Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s executive director, Turner Bitton, addresses the crowd Monday morning. (Sahalie Donaldson)

Turner C. Bitton, the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said he considers HB254 to be “an incredibly regressive piece of legislation.”

“Victims advocates across the country, across the state and in the local area all recognize that giving power and control, giving confidentiality back to victims of sexual assault, is the right way forward and HB254 is the wrong way,” Bitton said.

If HB254 comes back next year, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault said they will be ready.

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