Missouri bill on college rape stalls in Senate

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A bill to change how Missouri colleges and universities handle complaints of sexual assault and harassment hit a roadblock in the state Senate Wednesday, raising questions about its chances of passing this year.

At issue is how schools handle alleged violations of Title IX, a federal law that bans sex-based discrimination in education. Backers of the legislation said procedural changes are needed to ensure those accused of rape have a fair shot at defending themselves in the face of possible suspension or expulsion.

But universities and victim advocates pushed back against the proposals, and Democratic St. Louis Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said proposed changes would have a "chilling effect on victims."

A roughly six-hour debate on the measure that spanned Tuesday night into Wednesday morning ended without any action.

The latest Senate draft of the proposal would ensure students can be represented by attorneys, at their own expense, during investigations. That raised questions about equity for students who can't afford lawyers.

"What this legislation will do is make it more expensive, more intimidating for victims to report these kinds of crimes," said Kansas City Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur, who added that sexual assaults "are already underreported."

Cross-examinations would be allowed, meaning those accused of misconduct could question their accuser. Use of the term "survivor" would be banned, and universities could lose state funding for violating investigation procedures outlined in the bill.

Both the Senate and House bills also would allow students to appeal decisions to the Administrative Hearing Commission, where two of three sitting commissioners have ties to backers of the legislation.

Commissioner Renee Slusher is married to Columbia defense attorney Chris Slusher, who previously testified in favor of the measure and told lawmakers he has represented people facing Title IX allegations. Presiding and Managing Commissioner Audrey Hanson McIntosh is married to lobbyist Richard McIntosh, who is pushing the measure.

GOP Sen. Bill White, a Joplin attorney, said sexual assault cases should be handled in courts, not through the commission or universities.

As of Wednesday, 29 lobbyists were registered as working for an interest group pushing the bill called Kingdom Principles. That nonprofit is funding the Missouri Campus Due Process Coalition.

"We can't come close to the 100-plus taxpayer-funded lobbyists proponents of destroying Missouri college students' due process rights have among them," Missouri Campus Due Process Coalition spokesman Gregg Keller said in a statement, referencing university lobbyists. "But we believe we've put together an adequate team given the Constitutional nature of the rights our opponents seek to ruin."