The parents of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who disappeared during a Metallica Concert in Charlottesville almost two years ago, are rallying behind a state bill that would put campus rape and murder cases into local law enforcement hands.
Virginia House Bill 2490 would move on-campus felony crimes from college police departments to local police.
Nicknamed "Kathryn's Law," the bill looks to bypass what supporters call an ill-equipped campus police investigation as well as a hush-hush campus judicial process that discourages criminal charges, lacks transparency, accountability and ends in little or no academic punishment.
A Cloaked Campus Process
The bill's namesake, Kathryn Russell, was a student at the University of Virginia in February 2004 when she was allegedly raped by a junior she knew from class. She filed an incident report with campus police after local law enforcement declined to press criminal charges.
A nine-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that student rape victims are often refused a criminal process.
Prosecutors are reluctant to try campus rape cases because they often "come down to he-said-she-said accounts of sexual acts that clearly occurred; they lack independent corroboration like physical evidence or eyewitness testimony," the Center reported. "At times, alcohol and drugs play such a central role, students can’t remember details."
Student victims then turn to their schools for some sort of judicial process.
Russell navigated confidential UVA Sexual Assault Board (SAB) proceedings only to find her alleged attacker punished with a verbal reprimand.
Can Local Law Enforcement Make a Difference?
Similar bills have already been passed in West Virginia and Tennessee.
The as-of-yet unsolved death of Robert 'Robbie' Nottingham at East Tennessee State University in March 2003 led to the adoption of "Robbie's Law," on which the Virginia bill is based.
Gil Harrington hopes this law will provide a more thorough investigation process for severe crimes committed on campus. Her daughter made national headlines in January 2010, when she was found murdered in farm southwest of Charlottesville. Though University of Virginia police first picked up the investigation, they handed the case over to Virginia State Police within hours.
"[The bill] is not pertinent in Morgan's case, but you still need to standardize your response to things," Gil said. "Student [victims of a crime] should have the same level of investigation as those outside the campus."
Morgan's murderer was later connected to a 2005 rape in Fairfax City and is still unidentified and at-large.
"There's an inherent conflict of interest in crimes of that magnitude that are self-investigated," said Gil Harrington. She and her husband, Dan, will testify on behalf of the bill before the Virginia Crime Commission on November 16. "There's a resource and skillset deficit [in campus departments]. How many murders occur on college campuses as opposed to Charlottesville? To me it just makes sense."
The Harringtons reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, who has campaigned against sexual violence by introducing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and guiding schools through their legal obligations in preventing and responding to sex crimes on campus.
They hope that this bill will not only pass in Virginia, but will become a national law.
Rape and Murder in Virginia Colleges
A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that one in five women experience a rape or attempted rape during a five-year college career. The vast majority of victims know their offenders. And less than 5 percent of all victims report the crime.
Number of alleged forced sexual offenses and murder at all four-year public universities/colleges in Virginia:
- 2007: Rape, 48; Murder, 33 (Virginia Tech shooting)
- 2008: Rape, 64; Murder, 0
- 2009: Rape, 56; Murder, 1
The accuracy of these rape numbers is suspect. The U.S. Department of Education does not verify the crime data sent to them by institutions. These same higher ed schools that try to emanate safety to attract parents and enroll students are the only sources of this data.
Social stigma is another reason this rape data likely does not reflect the actual number of alleged sex crimes at public institutions. Because some rapes are committed without a weapon, and usually by people the victim knows, "half of all student victims do not label the incident 'rape'," according to the department.
Click here to see more crime data from college campuses.