State lawmakers were well intentioned when they passed the Jessica Horton Act in 2007. They wanted a more experienced and professional investigation of sexual assault cases that occur on college campuses. That's admirable. But clearly the law has not achieved its aim.
Now that the law's flaws have come to light, lawmakers need to amend it as soon as possible to accomplish what was intended.
And in light of a College of Charleston investigation into an alleged sexual assault, the law should be toughened.
The law says that campus police were required to report the accusation to the State Law Enforcement Division. But it also states that campus police should take the lead in the investigation.
So SLED tested some evidence, and campus police did the rest. Their six-month probe ended this month without arrests. The school claimed there was “insufficient evidence.”
The young woman's father is not satisfied, and he charges that the campus police don't have the experience — and perhaps the will — to do the job right. The alleged assailants were athletes for the college, and he holds that they might have been given a break because of it.
College officials defend their handling of the case. But so far, the college has refused to release key information about the incident.
Any sexual assault is a major blot on a college's reputation, and reporter Andrew Knapp noted that the Charleston institution already has more reports of forcible sex offenses on campus (2009-2011) than either the University of South Carolina or Clemson, both much larger schools.
The campus police department, with less training and less experience in dealing with sexual assault cases than Charleston Police Department officers, is not the best agency to lead such an investigation, and revisions to the Jessica Horton Act should reflect that fact.
The logical authority to investigate a sexual assault on the College of Charleston campus is the city police force. And while Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, author of the Jessica Horton Act, says the law doesn't stop the College of Charleston from requesting help from outside police agencies, the campus police shouldn't have the authority to make that call.
It makes far more sense that the governing jurisdiction — city or county law enforcement agency — retain responsibility for the investigation of a sexual assault complaint.
SLED's role as outlined in the Jessica Horton Act also needs to be clarified. The provision instructing SLED to “participate in a joint investigation” should be more specific. Is just testing evidence enough? Does SLED just do the bidding of the leading authority on the case?
Fortunately, Mr. Sheheen and Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a bill co-sponsor, have both vowed to look at the law and straighten out what needs straightening.
Certainly it is in the best interest of the victim, the college community and the community at large that sexual assault cases be resolved efficiently, professionally and successfully.
College police can do a lot to make a campus safer by educating students and patrolling trouble areas. Their mere presence can be a deterrent to crime.
When a student reports a sexual assault, college police can offer support, but the responsibility should rest with those in the best position to find the truth.