By The Editorial Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

A comprehensive package of bills from a half dozen legislators would strengthen Louisiana laws governing sexual assaults, particularly on college campuses, and provide badly needed training in handling these cases. Details of the legislation were released Monday after an almost year-long effort to understand the scope of the sexual assault problem on campuses and the weaknesses in the way colleges and universities handle those cases.

That examination, which was spearheaded by New Orleans Sen. J.P. Morrell, included a campus-by-campus accounting of sexual assault reports and policies and the creation of a working group including legislators, victim advocates and higher education officials to find best practices.

“I have been aghast with the discoveries made in regard to the broken sexual assault policy on state campuses as well as the general apathy of numerous law enforcement agencies as to the investigation of sexual assault cases,” Sen. Morrell said in a statement Monday. The campus survey results, which were reported by the Board of Regents last fall, found major differences in how sexual assault was handled at individual schools and revealed serious flaws on some campuses.

The package of bills outlined this week should change that.

Senate Bill 37 sponsored by Sen. Morrell requires the Council on Peace Officer Standards and Training to develop sexual assault awareness training. It would include the impact on victims; investigative methods, evidence-gathering and interview techniques, and a primer on federal and state victims’ rights laws. Training for campus police officers would begin this fall.

Sen. Morrell’s Senate Bill 242 mandates that every law enforcement agency, including campus police, detail the number of rapes and sexual assaults reported in the previous year, how many were investigated and how many evidence kits were submitted for DNA testing.

Senate Bill 117 by St. Charles Sen. Gary Smith and House Bill 139 by Rep. Valerie Hodges of Denham Springs changes aggravated rape, forcible rape and simple rape to “first degree rape,” “second degree rape” and “third degree rape” in the criminal code. The legislation also creates the crime of misdemeanor sexual battery. No other state currently uses the term “simple” to describe rape. That word could send the wrong signal and make the crime seem less serious than it is.

Senate Bill 36, which is sponsored by Sen. Jody Amedee of Gonzales, creates sexual protection orders and a Sexual Protection Order Registry.

Senate Bill 255 by Sen. Morrell would cover college Title IX requirements, including creation of a uniform policy on sexual misconduct, an annual sexual assault climate survey on each campus and designated victim advocates at each school. The bill also would require that students on disciplinary probation be flagged in records so they couldn’t simply transfer to another school.

Under Larose Rep. Jerry Gisclair’s House Bill 289, law enforcement agencies would be required to pick up sexual assault evidence kits at hospitals within seven days of a rape examination. The kits would have to be submitted for lab analysis within 30 days. That would be a major improvement, given the chronic backlogs that some law enforcement agencies have in processing rape evidence.

There are also three resolutions proposed by Sen. Morrell: creating a commission to study the disciplinary process for campus sexual assault; requiring the Responsible Vendor Program to provide sexual assault prevention training for servers and designating April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

There is tremendous potential in this legislative package. “We know that these bills will have a big impact on our work by creating more streamlined processes to respond to sexual assault cases, and will further our vision of ending sexual violence across Louisiana,” Racheal Hebert, executive director of Sexual Assault Trauma Awareness & Response,¬†said.

Taking sexual violence seriously, on campus and off, is essential to that effort.

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