Cohen Seglias Summer Associate Alexandra M. Aversa also contributed to this article.
On July 8, 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed two campus safety initiatives into law to combat sexual violence and increase campus safety at Pennsylvania colleges and universities. The two initiatives are a part of Act 16 of 2019 (HB 1615), an omnibus education bill that was signed into law on June 28, 2019.
Governor Wolf said that this new law was the first of its kind in the nation. Act 16 takes effect in June 2020 and has two main requirements.
Implement an Online Reporting System
By June 2020, colleges and universities in Pennsylvania must establish an online reporting system where employees and students can submit reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
The online platform must disclose certain information to employees and students submitting reports, such as who will be receiving access to the report once filed, how the information will be used, and contact information for both on- and off-campus resources serving victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Importantly, the system must allow for anonymous reporting. Regardless of whether the identity of the reporting party is included in the report, colleges and universities are required to investigate all online reports.
Act 16 also requires certain data security measures to protect information collected through the online reporting systems. Institutions must limit access to the data and track when reports are entered, updated, accessed, shared, or disseminated.
Adopt a Victims Bill of Rights Policy
Colleges and universities must also adopt “a clear, understandable written policy on sexual harassment and sexual violence that informs victims of their rights under federal and state law.” The policy must also include a safe harbor provision ensuring that a witness or victim who makes a report in good faith will not be sanctioned by the institution if the report includes an admission of drug or alcohol use that would otherwise constitute a violation of a student conduct policy. According to Act 16, the Pennsylvania Department of Education will release a model policy that colleges and universities can choose to adopt.
In conclusion, Act 16’s initiatives to increase public safety and encourage reporting of sexual violence and harassment place two new responsibilities on colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. With June 2020 fast approaching, colleges and universities will need an action plan to ensure compliance with Act 16. Navigating the terrain of college and university’s legal obligations such as Title IX, the Clery Act, and now Act 16, may be challenging. Pennsylvania colleges and universities should immediately consult with legal counsel to best equip themselves to handle these changes in the law and update their policies.