State attorney general candidates address sexual assault at universities

Courtesy of Josh Shapiro and John Rafferty Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Shapiro (left) pictured at a Labor Day rally in Pittsburgh and Republican candidate John Rafferty (right) pictured at a Fraternal Order of Police event in Harrisburg. The pair spoke with The Duke on their sexual assault policies.

Courtesy of Josh Shapiro and John Rafferty
Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Shapiro (left) pictured at a Labor Day rally in Pittsburgh and Republican candidate John Rafferty (right) pictured at a Fraternal Order of Police event in Harrisburg. The pair spoke with The Duke on their sexual assault policies.

Raymond Arke | Staff Writer

The case of Brock Turner at Stanford University sparked a nationwide conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. In Pennsylvania, State Attorney General candidates Josh Shapiro (D-Montgomery County) and Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery County) have laid out plans to reduce sexual assaults on Pennsylvania campuses.

Shapiro, the current Chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, has also served as a state representative and is currently the chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

His opponent, John Rafferty, is a state senator representing pieces of Berks, Chester and Montgomery Counties. In the past, he has been a private practice attorney and was the state’s deputy attorney general from 1988 to 1991.

The attorney general operates as the state’s highest law enforcement official. According to the state attorney general office’s website, its job is to be “charged with the responsibility for the prosecution of organized crime and public corruption,” along with the power to convene grand juries.

Currently the Pennsylvania Attorney General is Bruce Beemer. He was appointed to the office after Kathleen Kane was convicted of conspiracy and perjury, among other charges, for her role in leaking secret grand jury information.

As the state’s top prosecutor, the attorney general has a hand in enforcing laws — including sexual violence.

During a person’s four years in college, one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The two Pennsylvania Attorney General candidates spoke to The Duke in interviews about their campus sexual assault plans, among other issues.

Shapiro, a father of four young children, says the issue is important to him on a personal level. He plans to change the culture on campuses. So far, “we have failed to treat it seriously,” he said.

Shapiro said he wants people to treat campus sexual assault as “a pressing issue.”

“Be honest about it … We can’t tolerate a culture of cover-up,” he said.

Rafferty criticized the punishment Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner received for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

“The young man at Stanford is inexcusable,” he said. “This would not be tolerated here. We need to make sure victims know they have our support.”

This is an issue of great concern in Pennsylvania, Shapiro said. Eleven colleges in the state, including Carnegie Mellon University, Point Park University and Penn State, are currently under investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for the way they’ve handled sexual assaults.

The main push of both their efforts will be through education reform.

Shapiro said he will use the Education and Outreach Division of the attorney general’s office to assist with combating the issue.

“[The division] will actively engage college campuses to train educators, staff and students,” he said.

Rafferty also wants to create an education program on sexual assault for college campuses, which he said was an “important” issue.

“Education on campus is needed, when someone says ‘no’ it means ‘no,’” Rafferty said. “People need to be made aware of the consequences.”

While his specific package is in the works, Rafferty said the program would be available to all colleges in time to be used for next year’s freshman classes. The plan would include educating students to look for warning signs of a potential assailant and of potential victims.

Another of Shapiro’s ideas is to reform the assault reporting system.

“The process today is too secretive and fragmented,” he said. “I’d like this to not be secretive, we need a uniform reporting system.”

Another step in the simplifying process, Shapiro said, would be to have Pennsylvania colleges sign a memorandum of understanding. This would be to “clarify the roles of responders to sexual assault,” he said.

When it comes to prosecution of accused offenders, Shapiro promised to take a hard line.

“In general, we need tougher penalties for sexual assault,” he said.

Shapiro wants to make sure there is faith in the criminal justice system.

“It’s important for college students to know the justice system is fair,” he said. “Everyone’s rights will be protected.”

Additional steps to Shapiro’s plan are on his website. These include ensuring survivors “receive critical support services” and assisting campuses in following Title XI and other federal laws. Title IX is a 1972 federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs, which also includes requirements and guidelines for how schools handle sexual violence.

He also wants to wade through the backlog of evidence in the entire state’s sexual assault cases.

“There are 1,800 rape kits statewide, not just from campuses, that are backlogged,” Shapiro said. “It’s important evidence.”

The drive to prevent more campus assault stems from Shapiro’s experiences as a father.

“I’m a father of four students. I understand the struggles students face,” he said. “My job is to protect college students. I take that very seriously.”

Overall, both candidates are feeling good about their own respective chances headed into the last fifty days.

“The campaign is going great,” Shapiro said. “We are enjoying the support of people across the state.”

Shapiro added that he has received the endorsements of many organizations from unions to progressive groups. These include LGBT groups and Planned Parenthood, he said.

Rafferty feels just as confident.

“[The campaign] is going well. The people of Pennsylvania want experience, and I can offer that,” he said.

Pennsylvanians will decide the state’s next attorney general on the Nov. 8 general election day.

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