House Seeks to Strengthen Sexual Assault Laws at Schools

Feb 26, 2015

Members of the House Judiciary Committee are revisiting the state's mandatory reporting law after an incident at Capital High School in Charleston. The school's principal, Clinton Giles, resigned from his post after reports that he failed to notify law enforcement of a sexual assault on the high school's campus. Giles was reportedly notified of the January 26th incident by a counselor, and he now faces misdemeanor charges in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The incident now has lawmakers looking to update a forty year old law dealing with sexual assaults. But first, the committee considered a bill that aims to reign in the receptions lawmakers are invited to while in Charleston for legislative meetings.

House Bill 2022 prohibits certain political fundraising activities for members of the Legislature during certain periods of time before, during, and after the Legislature is in session. It also provides that existing misdemeanor penalties would apply if the law were broken.

Delegate Patrick Lane of Kanawha County is the sponsor of the bill. He says this bill addresses a long standing tradition during annual legislative sessions.  That tradition of nightly receptions serving free food and drinks to lawmakers. 

“I think the perception is a negative perception, that if we have a fundraising reception for a campaign on Tuesday and then there’s a bill that affects that, some particular industry on Thursday that we vote on, it’s unseemly," Lane noted, "And I think, in an effort to make sure that there’s trust between the public and the elected officials, I think it’s a pretty simple fix to that, to just say that we as members of the legislature are gonna hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we’re gonna say we are not going to fundraise or accept money from campaign contributions, while we are here making decisions on legislation.”

No action was taken on House Bill 2022 during Thursday morning’s meeting.

The second bill on the agenda was House Bill 2939, relating to requirements for mandatory reporting of sexual offenses on school premises involving students.

“To better explain this, I’m going try and start with a little bit of background; explain what current law is, and then I’ll go into explaining a little bit what the original bill is, and then the reason behind the committee substitute. Since at least 1977, there’s been a reporting requirement for teachers or, in general, reporting of abuse, neglect matters for children; if they’ve been abused or neglect, and that’s defined in chapter 49. The requirements do extend to teachers and school personnel. In particular, the law states that a person over the age of 18, who receives a disclosure from a credible witness or who observes any sexual abuse, or sexual assault of a child, shall immediately, and not more than 48 hours, report that to the police and or to DHHR, Child Protective Services. That’s been the existing law for quite some time. The difficulty is, is when you get into the definitions of sexual abuse or sexual assault. Under existing law, sexual abuse is limited to abuse by parent, guardian, or custodian, so if you connect the dots here, the only reporting requirement that exists for a student that may or may not have been sexually abused on school is if that occurs by the parent, guardian, or custodian. Hence, there’s a little bit of a loophole in the law with respect to reporting requirements. So, taking current scenario under existing law, if you have a situation where an individual who is, a report comes to a teacher that their friend has been sexually assaulted on campus, and it was done say, by another student. Under existing law, there’s no requirement for that teacher to report that incident.” -Marty Wright, Counsel to House Judiciary

Marty Wright, counsel to House Judiciary, explained the bill and the reason the law needed some updating.

The bill brought some major discussion among the delegates, from what counted as inappropriate touching between two high school aged children, to how much a teacher would be held accountable in regard to various situations, or to how far the definition of what counted as school premises reached.

By the end of the meeting, three amendments were proposed that addressed these situations, and the bill was passed unanimously in committee.

House Bill 2939 now goes to the floor for its consideration.