State lawmakers are sending a loud demand to Georgia colleges and universities about the way they should handle sexual assault or discrimination cases: more rights for the students facing the accusations.
Georgia Tech was recently ordered to reinstate a student expelled for an alleged sexual assault. State Rep. Earl Ehrhart says he's concerned about several pending lawsuits in Georgia with similar complaints about the lack of due process in these cases.
"I just can’t, in good conscience, appropriate funds that the taxpayers of Georgia trust me with to people who can't even do a due process policy to protect the kids who are in their care," Ehrhart told university officials, including some from Georgia Tech, at a house subcommittee hearing Monday.
He and other lawmakers heard from the mother of a junior at Georgia Tech who said her son has been penalized and branded as guilty of sexual intimidation, with little chance to defend himself and no access to legal counsel during the process.
University President Bud Peterson and other Georgia Tech representatives appeared before the house subcommittee hearing as well, answering questions about their policy for handling code of conduct violations.
Peterson pointed to an independent report by Nels Peterson, then-chief legal officer of the Georgia Board of Regents, which found “that in 95% of the cases, where the facts were not in dispute, the policy and procedures in place at Georgia Tech were consistent with best practices nationally.”
As for what they weren’t getting right, Peterson said the school plans to make recommended changes, which would include adding an appeals process if a student risks suspension.
Ehrhart, who has been pushing for such policy changes, said he's concerned lawyers are trolling for cases where students' right to due process have been violated.
“They see a payday from the people of this state that’s in the multi-multi millions,” Ehrhart said. “And they’re going to find them.”
Ehrhart said the Georgia Board of Regents has been working on a system-wide due process policy that, he said, should be released by the end of the month. He said he expects them to allow accused students to have access to legal counsel during school hearings and appeals processes. States including Arkansas, North Carolina and North Dakota have passed laws to that effect.
Ehrhart said he’s serious about withholding future project funding from schools that fail to make these changes.
"I can choose to find them irresponsible with respect spending the money they have,” he said. “So I can choose to find a place where there is a safe environment for kids on campus.”
Last fall, the Association of American Universities released the results of a nationwide study that found that, on average, more than 20 percent of female undergraduates have survived sexual assault or misconduct. Of those, more than half said they did not report the event. The study found the rates of sexual assault to be highest among undergraduate women and LGBT or gender non-conforming students.
Ehrhart said he plans to meet with the presidents of Georgia colleges and universities in the coming weeks about their policies for handling these cases.