An effort to curb campus sexual assault is on life support after this GOP-led panel overhauled a proposed new law in Colorado

Former college students came to the state Capitol to back a bill aimed at setting state standards for sexual misconduct policies in colleges across the state. Photo by John Herrick

Update: The Senate Appropriations Committee, controlled by Republicans, killed this bill on Tuesday, May 1. 

Jessica Higgins never reported. After she was raped her freshman year at the small private Colorado College in 2013, the English major feared that if she came forward, her story would be in doubt. She was intoxicated that night, and too young to legally drink alcohol. Many of the people she loved and trusted, she said, told her what happened was her fault.

“I felt so deeply that if I reported no one would believe me,” Higgins told The Colorado Independent.

Over the last five years, Higgins said she has struggled with periodic counseling, crippling doubt, and sleepless nights. On Wednesday, she traveled to the state Capitol to lobby for a bill that would set statewide standards for how colleges across Colorado should handle cases of sexual misconduct. Clear statewide guidelines, she said, would have given her the certainty that if she reported, the process would have been fair to both sides. This, she said, would have given her the sliver of confidence needed to report.

“Students should know that no matter where they choose to go to school in Colorado, they will be protected and supported if this ever happens to them,” Higgins told a panel of lawmakers.

But the bill she supported changed since she testified — and after the Senate Judiciary Committee added multiple amendments. Supporters of the original measure, including several women who wore denim on Wednesday to support victims of sexual assault, shook their heads and leaned forward in their seats as they watched amendment after amendment pile up on the bill with each smack of the gavel. In the end, the proposed new law passed 4-1.

Bob Gardner, a Republican senator from Colorado Springs who chairs the committee, backed all of the amendments.

“I think it is a question of whether we are going to provide fundamental fairness to both parties,” Gardner told the committee.

The original bill set a statewide standard for how colleges should adjudicate campus sexual assault. It originally required colleges to use a relatively low burden of proof, the preponderance-of-evidence standard, which generally determines if allegations are credible if they “more likely than not” occurred. But the bill, as amended, now allows colleges to opt for a higher burden of proof by requiring clear and convincing evidence, which is not specifically defined in the bill.

The original bill also protected participants in investigations from facing any punishment. The amended bill requires that participation be truthful, which means participants considered to not be telling the truth could be disciplined.

This, says Higgins, would create a chilling effect.  

“It’s bad enough to have people not believe you, but then to know that you would face disciplinary consequence for not being believed— it’s just adding salt into a deep, gaping wound,” she said.

Rape is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes; according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, about 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police.

State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is a lead sponsor on the bill in the House, said one point of the bill was to ensure that victims feel comfortable coming forward. But the amendments, Winter said, would make women go through a harder, more degrading process if they want to report sexual assault.

“Why would women come forward knowing that for accountability, they would have to go through a higher standard?” Winter said. “It’s already scary enough coming forward.”

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Westminster who is sponsoring the bill, bucked her party in opposing these amendments, saying they would upset a delicate compromise made through months of work with colleges and sexual assault prevention advocates.

“There are no courts of law on our campuses, but that is what this is going to sort of create — that impression that this is going to be like a court hearing,” Martinez Humenik told The Colorado Independent. 

The Colorado School of Mines, University of Colorado, and Regis University either supported or were neutral on the original bill, and some are now sorting out their current position following the changes. 

After the vote, several of the proponents were dismayed. They talked about coming back next year. And, as if delivering a post-mortem, Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, said, “don’t give up. There is more fighting to do.”

The proposed law now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee and then the full Senate before it can go to a conference committee.

And Martinez Humenik said she would like to see the bill brought back to its original form.

She will need to convince just one of her Republican colleagues — or Sen. Cheri Jahn, a former Democrat who became an independent last year — to get a majority vote needed to strip the committee report from the bill. Otherwise, several sponsors may seek to kill the bill as currently amended in conference committee.

Said Martinez Humenik: “I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet.”

In Colorado, Republicans control the Senate by one seat, meaning they often control committees. In the House, Democrats have control where their party can control committees.