Lawmakers Urged to Pass Bill Protecting Women From Campus Violence

July 20, 2012

With Congress heading for recess and elections looming, advocates are imploring lawmakers to set aside politics and pass legislation to step up protections for women as well as expand campus reporting of crimes against them.

The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women sent an open letter to Congress on Friday signed by more than 200 survivors of campus violence at 176 colleges and universities. The letter calls for both chambers of Congress to reauthorize a comprehensive Violence Against Women Act by the end of September.

"I'm absolutely livid that we have to be here today," Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said during a conference call with reporters. "Even in today's polarized political climate, we should at least be able to agree that when we send our daughters and sons to college, they should be protected from stalking, violence, date rape, and sexual assault."

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed bills to reauthorize the law, but key differences between the bills have stalled negotiations over a compromise version. The Senate passed its version in April, but when the House voted in May, it removed provisions to expand protections for American Indian, immigrant, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims, angering Democrats in the chamber and the White House.

The House version also lacks provisions that would amend the Clery Act—the main campus-crime-reporting law—to add domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking to the list of crimes that colleges must track each year.

"Too often schools feel that their job is to underreport or cover up so their reputations will not be injured," Eleanor Smeal, president and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said during the conference call. "But the reality is, if we're going to get to the bottom of this, we need transparency and reporting."

The Senate version would also require colleges to establish clear and timely procedures for on-campus disciplinary action in response to those crimes, and to provide victims with written notification of their rights, in addition to stepping up prevention programs on campuses. The U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services would work together to circulate best practices among institutions.

Politics or People

Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Students Association, said during the conference call that he was disheartened by the long wait to reauthorize the legislation, which passed easily in 1994 with bipartisan support. "It is Congress's job to prioritize our lives and not politicize our safety," Mr. Sanchez said.

The Senate version, for its part, lacks a provision—to create a National Center for Campus Public Safety—that was included by the House. Prompted by high-profile tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shootings, the government center would research security issues and train campus-safety agencies.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, noted at a news conference on Thursday that incidents of domestic violence had decreased by 53 percent since the Violence Against Women Act was originally passed. But she and other senators said it needed to be strengthened.

Also speaking at the news conference, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, cited the statistic that nearly 20 percent of female college students are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault as evidence that the Violence Against Women Act must be fortified.

Laura L. Dunn, a sexual-assault survivor who founded the advocacy group SurvJustice, said her experiences illustrate the need for reform. When she was sexually assaulted, as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she had little awareness of what assault was, let alone how to press charges.

Ms. Dunn said she hopes Congress reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act before a new crop of freshmen—the students she believes are particularly vulnerable—arrive on campuses this fall.

"This is becoming more about politics than it is about people," she said of the differing bills. "Having suffered firsthand from this violence, I'm just at a loss as to why we can't push this through."