Washington lawmakers will likely consider whether colleges should be required to share information about sexual misconduct by employees, to prevent abusive faculty and staff from jumping between schools.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, has drafted a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would require applicants to post-secondary institutions to disclose ongoing investigations or substantiated findings of sexual misconduct, and to allow their previous employers to disclose related information to the colleges. It would also require college officials to request this information about applicants and share it if contacted for a reference check, according to a draft reviewed by The Seattle Times.
The lawmaker, also a professor of public health at the University of Washington, has worked with the state’s public colleges on the bill, which he intends to prefile for the legislative session that begins Jan. 13. Pollet said college presidents have expressed a desire to end the practice commonly referred to as “passing the harasser,” but that they’ve felt sharing that type of information was legally risky in the past. He hopes to make colleges’ responsibilities and legal protections clear in the law.
“As an attorney, I get it,” Pollet said. “But the institution’s job is to say, ‘I’m going to do the right thing to protect students at our institutions. And I might be sued, but I have a legal defense that I think is valid.'”
The lawmaker said he was pushed to act after The Seattle Times reported that a former University of Washington athletic executive was able to become vice president of another college without a finding of sexual misconduct following him. The Times found Washington’s public four-year colleges lacked processes to learn about and disclose applicants’ history of sexual misconduct.
The draft legislation is intended to address some of those cracks in the system, such as by requiring colleges to ask previous employers about sexual misconduct. It would also require college officials contacted for a reference check to disclose a former employee’s sexual misconduct, even if not specifically asked.
Some colleges anticipate they will need to create a centralized system for personnel information, Pollet said. He hopes schools would have this system in place by 2021, but the timeline could be subject to change. Private colleges in the state may also mount opposition and haven’t shown up at the table, Pollet said.
The bill would also prohibit agreements between colleges and employees that would prevent disclosure of sexual misconduct. As it stands now, the bill would not prohibit schools from entering into nondisclosure agreements with survivors, which some students told The Times felt like an attempt by their schools to buy their silence. The bill also would not address other kinds of misconduct by employees or sexual misconduct findings against students.
“This is really focused on the abuse of power between a faculty or staff member and a student,” Pollet said. “A lot more needs to be done in terms of the student on student sexual misconduct… but it’s just not what we focused on for this session.”
If the bill passes, Washington colleges would join a small but growing number of institutions across the country that have put in place similar policies, including the University of Wisconsin system and University of California, Davis. The piecemeal approach concerns some higher-education experts, as professors and administrators commonly move between states for jobs, but they say change at the national level isn’t expected.