By Russell Hixson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
An Oklahoma senator has authored a bill that would require college and university employees to contact police if they receive information about a student being sexually assaulted.
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, said the bill is not in response to the recent case involving a former Oklahoma State University student accused of sexually assaulting several men. The university has come under fire for not immediately contacting police when allegations surfaced and an investigation into the school’s handling of the assault complaints has been launched by OSU President Burns Hargis.
“Oklahoma State University appreciates any effort that supports a safe campus environment,” said OSU spokesman Gary Shutt about the bill.
Ivester said his bill would require universities and colleges to report information regarding violent crimes and sexual assaults to local authorities. It would also require campus police departments to enter into a mutual aid agreement with city and county law enforcement regarding such cases.
Various attorneys specializing in education law and Senate staff have been in contact with Ivester to help draft the bill. Ivester said he began working on the bill long before the incidents at OSU which have resulted in four charges of sexual battery against former student Nathan Cochran. Cochran has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Ivester said he believes schools have a responsibility to look after the safety of students and should be required to go to police with violent or sexual crimes.
“I understand individual rights and concerns,” Ivester said, noting some may feel the bill could limit privacy. He said this is partially a misunderstanding of how police investigations work. At any point the victim can choose to not proceed further and it is not as if police release their name to the public, Ivester said.
The Stillwater Police Department officials said they will refrain from commenting on the proposed legislation until they can get clarification on some of the bill’s wording.
Some victim’s rights groups are concerned about the possible legislation.
“It certainly runs the risk of taking away victims’ rights,” said Brenda Gill, a sexual assault victim counselor at Wings of Hope.
She said while a victim’s name may not be directly released, their involvement in an investigation or court case can become quickly known in a small community like Stillwater.
“Legislators often times enact laws with the best of intentions but don’t see some of the potential factors,” Gill said.
She said 25 to 35 sexual assault evaluations are done at Stillwater Medical Center and of those often less than half ever contact police. Gill said this is because victims often blame themselves or feel blamed by others for being assaulted.
Gill said the health of the victim is what the goal is for Wings of Hope. That doesn’t always involve going all the way through a police investigation and court proceedings.
“It is different for every victim,” Gill said.