Campus sexual assault inspires rare bipartisan bill

07/30/14 02:41 PM

By Meredith Clark

A group of young women joined eight senators from both sides of the political aisle - including Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York and Marco Rubio, R-Florida among others - to announce a bill aimed at making college campuses safer.

“We’re not going to legislate away sexual assault,” Annie Clark, a sexual assault survivor and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, said at a press conference Wednesday, “but we can make it better for the survivors coming forward, and this bill is an incredible first step in making that happen.”

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act will increase the possible penalties for schools that violate federal laws governing how colleges deal with sexual assault reports, require schools to provide each victim of sexual violence with a confidential advisor to help him/her understand his/her options, and require schools to use a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings - a measure aimed at removing university athletic departments from positions of power in cases involving student athletes.

Currently, schools that violate Title IX, the 1972 gender equity law that requires schools investigate all sexual assault reports, have faced only one potential penalty - the loss of all federal financial aid. This penalty has never been applied, and survivors of campus sexual assault have spoken out at Senate roundtables and hearings about the need for a broader range of penalties.

The new bill would allow the Department of Education to fine a school up to 1% of its operating budget for violating Title IX, a number that can add up quickly. “A school like Harvard could face a $42 million fine,” Gillibrand said Wednesday, which should be “a big incentive to follow the law.” And it will increase fines for schools that violate the Clery Act, which requires schools to report their crime statistics, from $35,000 to $150,000.

The measure will also require all schools to conduct climate surveys to gather data on the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses. Because sexual assault is under-reported in general - only one incident in 20 is reported - the information colleges and universities collect on reported assaults does not present an accurate picture of what students experience. When a White House Task Force on campus sexual assault released its report in April, it recommended schools start doing climate surveys and included resources for administrators to conduct them.

But even as colleges plot the best way forward, many schools are already resisting the idea of a mandate, and McCaskill clashed with a major higher education lobbying group over a survey she conducted of more than 400 colleges. She said Wednesday that schools have all the resources they need to conduct the surveys.

“These universities are filled with researchers that do surveys all the time,” McCaskill said. “It seems to me a lame excuse that a university would say we can’t do a survey since it is one of the methods of academic research that is relied on in that setting.”

McCaskill and Gillibrand both said they are optimistic that the bill will receive broad support and stressed the bipartisan effort behind it. McCaskill also said she hopes to get floor time for the bill when the Senate returns in Semptember from a five-week recess. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, has announced that she will sponsor the House version of the bill.

There are other congressional efforts that complement the new Senate push. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, which passed with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, clarified that schools must treat crimes like dating violence and stalking as seriously as they treat sexual assault. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the act’s sponsor, told msnbc that he is still pressing the Department of Education to fully implement the law, which “emphasizes prevention, strengthens reporting standards, and provides colleges with clearer guidance on how to adjudicate disciplinary proceedings for dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.”

For the survivors of sexual violence that attended the press conference, the Senate’s action is necessary but long overdue. Anna, a student at Hobart and William Smith College in New York who spoke to The New York Times about her assault and her struggles with her school’s disciplinary process, thanked the senators and asked for more unity. “What happened to me, and to too many other women and men, is wrong. It should not matter what you drink or what you wear, that does not give anyone the right to sexually assault you,” Anna said. “With the help of Senator Gillibrand and everyone standing beside me today, it is time to protect those who are wronged. The time is now.”


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