Proposed Senate Bill Targets Sexual Assault on College Campuses


Image from abcnews.com

Image from abcnews.com

On Wednesday, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate to help combat sexual assault on college campuses. It’s called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, and it was introduced by Senators McCaskill (D-MO) and Gillibrand (D-NY). The issue has been receiving increased attention from lawmakers after the Obama Administration created a task force to protect students from sexual assault in late January. In April, NotAlone.gov was launched in an effort to provide information and resources about sexual assault. In May, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a list of 55 schools under investigation for possible violation of Title IX.  A sampling of the schools listed includes The University of California-Berkeley, Amherst University, Harvard University—Law, Princeton University, and Dartmouth College.  There are currently 71 ongoing investigations.  Many of the investigations involve mishandling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. Some schools do not investigate or adjudicate claims at all. According to a recent survey released by Sen. McCaskill (D-Mo.), 41% of the 440 American colleges and universities surveyed had not conducted an investigation of alleged sexual assault in five years. This is despite many of the colleges having reported sexual violence incidents to the Department of Education in the past five years. Failure to adjudicate all sexual assault claims is illegal according to federal law, but the law is often neither heeded nor enforced. Senator McCaskill noted, “I don’t think universities really feel there are consequences that are that meaningful.”  Previously the penalty for a violation of Title IX was the loss of all federal financial aid. This had never been enforced, and the proposed legislation delineates different punitive measures  for noncompliance.

Under the Clery Act (1990), colleges and universities receiving federal aid must provide information about campus crimes. The fine for a violation of this law has been increased from $35,000 to $150,000 per transgression. This is just part of a broader attempt to discourage universities from hiding their numbers and pretending like sexual assault isn’t a real issue on their campus. Earlier in the year, Vice President Joe Biden said, “I challenge every college and university, if they are really serious about protecting their students, to collect anonymous surveys. They have a moral responsibility to know what’s going on on their campuses.” If the proposed legislation passes, all schools would be required to administer standardized, anonymous surveys about sexual assault on campus. If a school does not comply, the penalty would be the loss of up to 1% of their operating budget. Publishing survey results are just one way to provide prospective students and their parents with more information regarding the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses across America.

Another part of the bill would require all colleges and universities to provide confidential advisors for survivors. The advisors would help connect victims with resources, information, support and assistance. This would include help reporting the crime to campus authorities or local law enforcement, but only at the request of the survivor. Another provision states that students cannot be punished for other violations revealed in “good faith.” For example, a student cannot be punished for reporting he/she was drinking (underage) at the time of the assault. This is in an attempt to encourage more individuals to come forward and help solve the problem of underreporting. According to a 2007 report from the National Institute of Justice, 1-in-5 undergrads will be sexually assaulted, usually during their first two years at college. Regarding this statistic, Senator Kirsten Gillbrand said, “Our students deserve better than this. The price of a college education should not include a 1-in-5 change of being sexually assaulted.” The actual percentage of victims of sexual assault is likely higher, as many crimes are never reported by the survivors for various reasons.

Another part of the bill would make it illegal for athletic departments to adjudicate in cases involving athletes. This practice was found to have occurred in 20% of the schools that participated in the McCaskill survey. Speaking of the new provision, bill sponsor Senator Rubio (R-FL) said, “I think it [the proposed legislation] does a tremendous job of advancing the cause forward by creating a uniform system where every single victim in every single instance is treated the same, where there is no special preference because someone can dunk a basketball.” As Rubio noted, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act would also set out a uniform system for disciplinary proceedings, as well as minimum training standards. Hopefully, minimum training standards will help to lower the amount of cases which are mishandled. According to the McCaskill survey, 21% of the schools surveyed provided no training to faculty and staff on the proper handling of sexual assault cases. 33% of schools did not provide any basic training to those adjudicating claims of sexual assault.

Some critics of the bill question the role of colleges in handling cases of alleged sexual assault. They argue that as sexual assault is a crime, it should be handled by the police and not the “pseudo-courts” of colleges and universities. Colleges and universities often have lower bars for “conviction,” and require only a “preponderance of evidence.” The mindset is guilty until proven innocent as opposed to the criminal justice system’s mantra of innocent until proven guilty. This means colleges can (but often don’t) punish students for things which would never result in criminal convictions in a court of law. David Lisak, a consultant on campus sexual assault, said, “There is a level of absurdity in making universities handle serious sexual violence cases. We wouldn’t ask universities, of course, to handle a homicide. We don’t even ask them to handle serious aggravated assaults.” Anne Neal, President of American Council of Trustees and Alumni, concurs with Mr. Lisak: “Rape and sexual assault are felonies and they are matters for the police and criminal justice system—not universities. The higher education community simply is not equipped to play judge, jury, and executioner in maters that require the careful eye of police and jurists.”  Later in her written statement, she condemned the “costly and duplicative system” which often has the police and the university investigating the same claim simultaneously. Mrs. Neal also said, “The system being rolled out on campuses will end up requiring a very extensive, costly quasi-judicial apparatus that will disregard due process and constitutional protections.” Opponents of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act feel providing more resources to the police will help not just victims of sexual assault on college campuses, but all citizens.  In her letter, Mrs. Neal also expressed concerns about the cost of, “sexual violence counselors, sex offender treatment programs, Title IX coordinators, [and] specialized trauma trainers.”  Supporters of the bill believe adjudication by college campuses is completely necessarily, especially in the cases of victims which do not wish to press charges in a court of law. They disregard the “not my problem” sentiment, and believe colleges can and should play an important role is handling cases of sexual assault. One school that has attempted to make the adjudication process more fair and impartial is Amherst. After coming under fire for their mishandling of sexual assault cases, they’ve hired a panel of experts to serve as the “jury” for all cases of alleged sexual assault.

On Thursday, a companion bill to the Campus Accountability and Safety Act was introduced in the House of Representatives with numerous bipartisan supports. The Senate version will likely come up for a vote on the floor after the five-week recess ends in September.

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