Sexual assault: Senators introduce bill to hold campuses more accountable

The legislation, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators, would also require colleges to provide confidential advisers to students in the wake of a sexual assault.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Anna (c.) a survivor of sexual assault, with her mother Susan (r.) joins Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. (l.), during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, to discuss 'Campus Accountability and Safety Act' that is before the Senate.

A bipartisan group of US senators introduced the Campus Safety and Accountability Act Wednesday to hold college campuses more accountable for preventing sexual violence and supporting students who come forward. 

Advocates for sexual assault survivors praised the bill, saying it would boost enforcement of current laws and address much of the underreporting and lack of best practices that was identified in a national survey released recently by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri. 

One key provision of the legislation is a requirement that colleges provide confidential advisers to students in the wake of a sexual assault.

Some universities, such as Princeton, already provide confidential counseling. But students on many campuses may not know whether the person they speak to about assault is required to report it to law enforcement or campus officials, and “that’s one of the major bottlenecks for survivors,” says Tracey Vitchers, spokeswoman for SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape), an advocacy group in New York. SAFER was among the groups consulted by the lawmakers who crafted the legislation.

Among the requirements:

• Schools would not be allowed to sanction students who reveal a violation such as underage drinking in the course of reporting a sexual assault.

• All campus personnel who investigate sexual assaults and participate in disciplinary hearings would have to receive specialized training on the nature of such crimes and their effects on survivors.

• To improve transparency, all colleges and universities would have to administer a standardized survey on sexual violence, and the results would be published online. This would not only help parents and prospective students, but would also help track national progress on reducing sexual violence on campuses.

• Colleges would have to follow certain standards for disciplinary proceedings and not allow subgroups such as athletic departments to handle complaints of sexual violence. (More than 20 percent of the campuses in Senator McCaskill’s survey allowed athletic departments to handle cases involving athletes.)

• Campuses would be required to create memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement to clarify responsibilities and better share information.

• Schools that violate various requirements would face penalties of up to 1 percent of their operating budgets. The federal government has had the option of withholding all federal aid, but it has not done so. The new provision is considered more enforceable.

“The message is: campus sexual assault must command attention at the top administrative rung of all universities,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, in a statement. “The days of blaming the victim are done. College administrators can no longer dismiss, demean, or deny the problem. Assault-free campuses must be the new norm.”

In addition to McCaskill and Senator Blumenthal, the legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, and Mark Warner (D) of Virginia.

The bill comes after months of consultations between lawmakers, survivors, and advocacy organizations. Noting a recent White House report that estimated 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, Senator Gillibrand said in a statement: “We should never accept the fact that women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus. But today they are.... We will not allow these crimes to be swept under the rug any longer.”

Colleges and universities share the goal of reducing sexual assaults, and “making it clear that victims have a confidential adviser is really important,” says Terry Hartle, a spokesman for the American Council on Education in Washington, which represents institutions of higher education. “But on balance, this is a pretty heavy-handed approach” and doesn’t untangle the mass of guidelines from various federal agencies that colleges are struggling to follow, he says.

For instance, Mr. Hartle says, the new bill would require more coordination between law enforcement and campuses, but campuses that already want to coordinate face hurdles such as a requirement by the Department of Education that complaints be resolved within 60 days. “Local law enforcement rarely works on that timetable,” he says.

For sexual assault prevention researcher Jane Stapleton at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, the bill comes up short. “Response and transparency are all really important, but an essential component to effective response ... is prevention education, and unfortunately that is not in what McCaskill introduced today,” she says.

In the US House, Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California is expected to introduce on Wednesday the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Assault Act. Like the Senate bill, it would require annual surveys on campuses and boost penalties for violations of federal laws related to sex discrimination and campus safety. It would also give students a private right to sue institutions for being harmed by a failure to meet campus safety requirements.

The House and Senate bills add to the momentum surrounding the issue of campus sexual assault, stemming from activism among survivors and an unprecedented level of attention from President Obama’s administration. The Department of Education has already boosted its enforcement of provisions in Title IX, the law pertaining to sex discrimination in education, and is poised to finalize new rules this fall under the Jeanne Clery Act, which covers campus crime reporting and prevention.

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