Bill targets how schools handle sex assault claims

MICHAEL CATALINI AP News

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The Assembly has passed legislation that could result in New Jersey colleges and universities facing fines up to $50,000 for not properly investigating sexual assault allegations.

Lawmakers passed the measure Monday by a 70-3 vote, with three abstentions. It would authorize the state attorney general to impose fines on institutions of higher education if they don't adequately investigate the allegations.

Lawmakers say the legislation comes in response to the federal disclosure that 55 colleges and universities are under investigation for their potential mishandling of sexual assault complaints.

"The days of looking the other way when it comes to sexual assault are over," Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

Under the proposed legislation, the attorney general would determine the criteria that colleges and universities would have to meet.

Lawmakers say victims deserve to know that schools are doing what they can to minimize trauma.

"The physical and mental scarring from sexual assault can impact a victim for the rest of their life, especially if the incident is not processed properly through the appropriate legal channels," Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle said in a statement.

The New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities supports the intentions behind the bills but raised some concerns about the measure, specifically that such legislation could affect victims' expectations of confidentiality, said the group's spokesman Paul Shelly.

The bill also calls for colleges and universities to publicly communicate their policies and procedures on reporting sexual assaults at the beginning of each academic year.

Federal law already requires colleges and universities to report crime on campus under the Clery Act, and the Campus Save Act, passed in 2013, calls for reporting domestic violence and sexual assault.

The measure now goes to the state Senate, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on the matter.