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The state of Virginia is exploring the creation of a regional center that could take sexual assault investigations out of the hands of colleges and universities.

Last month, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, proposed a $240 million higher education spending plan. Included in the initiative is funding for a $100,000 study that would determine how to “design a pilot program to create a regional center for the investigation of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence similar to the multidisciplinary approach used in child advocacy centers.”

The center would be staffed with trauma-informed investigators who would coordinate with colleges and law enforcement officials alike to investigate cases of sexual violence that occur on college campuses. The study will explore the potential center’s expected costs, financial support and staffing needs, as well as create a sample memorandum of understanding for use between institutions, law enforcement and the state’s attorneys’ offices.

As the study has not yet been formally approved, the proposal is light on details, but Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said “early indicators” are that using the center would be voluntary for colleges.

“This is a study, an objective evaluation of this idea so we can decide if this is something of value,” Blake said. “I think the primary reason it came together was an interest in some cost savings. There are smaller institutions who can’t afford a full team of professional investigators, and having a regional center that institutions could reach out to might make the whole investigation process easier.”

Since the U.S. Department of Education began urging colleges to more rigorously investigate cases of campus sexual assault in 2011, some politicians and advocates have questioned the wisdom of allowing college disciplinary proceedings to tackle offenses as serious as sexual violence. Victims' advocacy groups and the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights argue that colleges have an obligation to do so under the gender discrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and that campus processes can be more victim focused than formal criminal proceedings. Those pushing for more police involvement argue that institutions are not equipped to properly investigate sexual assault, nor are they able to provide a fair adjudication process.

The study is not Virginia's first attempt at changing how campuses investigate sexual assault and how institutions interact with local law enforcement. Last year, the Virginia Senate considered a bill that would have required public colleges to report an alleged campus sexual assault to police within 24 hours. College employees who failed to report an assault to police would have been charged with a misdemeanor. After hearing from survivors and victims' advocates, state legislators retooled the plan to promote what one senator called “enhanced encouragement” instead.

The version of the bill that passed requires employees of public and private institutions who learn of a sexual assault to report the information to the campus Title IX coordinator, who must meet with a review committee within 72 hours to discuss the case. If the committee determines that the misconduct poses further risk to the health and safety of the victim or others on campus, then the institution is required to report the crime to local law enforcement.

In recent years, several legal experts and advocates have proposed creating a centralized system for investigating cases of campus sexual assault, but many said this week that they believe this is the first time a state has begun to actively explore and fund the idea.

When discussing the investigation and adjudication of campus sexual assault during a panel discussion at the National Press Club in March, John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, advocated for what he called “a third ground” -- an option that exists outside of institutions and law enforcement, which he said have their own biases, pressures and motivations that can trip up an investigation. “But a consortium wouldn't be pushed in any way at all,” Banzhaf said. “They don't have donors, they don't have basketball teams. They are completely and totally impartial.”

Banzhaf’s plan, similar to the proposed Virginia center, would be to create a regional consortium, with colleges pooling their resources to fund a team of trained investigators they can call upon when responding to cases of campus sexual assault.

While open to the concept, other legal experts and advocates said they are skeptical about how such a center would function under Title IX, which requires colleges to provide a “prompt and equitable response” to cases of sexual harassment and violence. If a college fails to do so, the department's Office for Civil Rights can investigate and sanction the institution.

“From the perspective of my work, it will be interesting to know how one would hold such a center accountable for violating federal law as it’s not an educational institution per se,” Laura Dunn, founder and executive director of the victims' rights group SurvJustice, said.

Blake, of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said making sure colleges remain ultimately responsible for how a case is handled even when another entity is investigating the case will be one of the issues examined by the study. Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager at the American Association of University Women, said addressing that issue would be “key” to the center being a viable option under Title IX.

“You have to make sure the center offers resources but doesn’t absolve colleges and universities of their responsibilities,” Hedgepeth said. “They still have to act with interim measures and with accommodations for victims. They still have to take schoolwide steps to eliminate hostile climates even when there’s an investigation continuing at the center. The hope is that it’s something that plugs into the already ongoing work, not something that passes the buck to someone else.”

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