RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A state task force on campus sexual assault began its work Thursday mindful of the ongoing search for a missing University of Virginia student and the arrest of a suspect who left two colleges after being accused of rape, but was never charged.
Hannah Graham’s disappearance “reinforces our mission here today,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe told his 36-member task force at its first meeting.
Graham, 18, vanished Sept. 13. Police have charged Jesse Matthew, 32, with abduction with intent to defile, or sexually assault, the sophomore from northern Virginia. Officials have said that rape complaints were lodged against Matthew at Liberty University in 2002 and at Christopher Newport University in 2003, but he was not charged in either case because the complainants chose not to go forward with prosecution.
The way university administrators and police respond to students’ sexual-assault claims will be one of the topics studied. Attorney General Mark Herring, who chairs the task force, said he wants “a survivor-centered response that makes them feel respected and taken care of.”
Another goal, he said, is to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
State Secretary of Education Anne Holton said she has visited U.Va. several times since Graham disappeared and “the pain is palpable.” She said the high-profile case has “put a human face on this issue.”
Virginia officials have studied campus sexual assault in the past, most recently in 2011, when the Virginia State Crime Commission examined the problem at the behest of the General Assembly. Little came of that effort, but McAuliffe and leaders of his task force vowed to take action this time.
“Inaction at the state level cannot continue,” Herring said.
After being sworn in and hearing the opening speeches, task force members split into three subcommittees — prevention, response and law enforcement — for their preliminary discussions. Herring encouraged the subcommittees to meet three more times before the next full task force meeting in January.
The task force consists mainly of campus administrators, advocates, law enforcement officials, higher education attorneys and health professionals. It will make its recommendations to McAuliffe by June 1.
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