Senate Bill Asks Colleges to Do More to Combat Sexual Assault

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Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri (right) and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, are among the eight cosponsors of the bipartisan measure. They were joined by survivors of campus sexual assault during a news conference about the bill in Washington on Wednesday.
July 31, 2014

Colleges would have to expand resources for victims of sexual assault and training for employees in handling students’ reports of assault under a bill introduced by eight U.S. senators on Wednesday. The proposed legislation seeks to apply pressure through public information and harsher penalties: Annual surveys of students’ experiences would be published online, by institution, and colleges found to be out of compliance with federal requirements would face fines of up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.

The bipartisan move—four Democrats and four Republicans sponsored the bill—"bodes well for our shared fight to turn the tide against sexual violence on our campuses," Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said in a written statement. "To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered," she said, "and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable."

Under the legislation, colleges would have to designate confidential advisers to support victims and offer them accommodations (such as changes in housing or academic schedules) and information about their options for moving forward in the campus disciplinary process or through the law-enforcement system. And colleges would have to handle all sexual-violence complaints through the same process and not, say, have a separate one run by the athletic department for cases involving athletes. To Senator McCaskill’s dismay, a survey she conducted of colleges found the latter practice in place on 22 percent of campuses.

To coordinate campus responses with those of local law-enforcement agencies, the bill would require memoranda of understanding to be updated every two years.

And to promote transparency, the bill would require colleges to conduct uniform annual climate surveys to gauge students’ knowledge of campus sexual-assault policies, attitudes surrounding the issue, and experiences with sexual violence. The results would be available online for students and parents, the lawmakers said, as would information about investigations and enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Education regarding campus responses to sexual violence and harassment.

Curbing Campus Sexual Assaults

The existing penalty for noncompliance with the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX—the termination of all federal funds—is considered only theoretical. The new bill would introduce fines of up to 1 percent of an institution’s budget, and fines under the campus-crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act, now $35,000 per violation, would go up to $150,000.

Student Support

Students and alumni who gathered here on Capitol Hill on Wednesday welcomed the bill and the senators’ support.

"Based on our own experiences of surviving intrapersonal violence and then institutional abuse and neglect at the hand of college administrators," said one campus sexual-assault survivor, Wagatwe Wanjuki, she and other activists and their allies "have called for better federal oversight of universities."

"We’re encouraged that senators on both sides of the aisle have heard students’ needs and concerns," said Ms. Wanjuki, who is an alumna of Tufts University and an organizer of the advocacy group Know Your IX.

A student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges whose experience after filing a sexual-assault complaint there was described in a recent article in The New York Times expressed her gratitude for the legislation.

"I stand here today, and I am not OK," said the student, known only as Anna, whose complaint against three football players was quickly dismissed by a campus disciplinary panel. "I am thankful. Thankful for all the people who have come forward and supported me."

The bill, called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, follows a series of roundtable discussions held by Ms. McCaskill on the issue, as well as a Senate hearing and her survey of colleges. The attention comes as colleges, under increasing pressure, are grappling with their legal responsibilities to investigate and resolve reports of sexual violence, as required under Title IX. The Education Department is now investigating more than 70 colleges and universities for possible violations of the law involving alleged sexual misconduct.

Debate over the federal government’s role in combating campus sexual assault arose more than once in the run-up to the proposed legislation. Lawmakers suggested both that the department needed more power to compel colleges to respond effectively to students’ reports of sexual violence and harassment and that its Office for Civil Rights had already overstepped its authority by issuing guidance independently.

How standardized campus policies and practices should be is another pending question. During one of the roundtables, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, asked, "Shouldn’t there be some sort of set of standards … for what kinds of services should be offered, what advice should be given?"

In April the White House offered guidelines, and in June the Education Department proposed new rules for how colleges should prevent sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking.

As Congress approaches its August recess, other lawmakers also unveiled proposed legislation on campus sexual assault on Wednesday. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Susan Davis, both California Democrats, introduced the Survivor Outreach and Support Campus Act, which would require colleges to establish a campus advocate to support victims of sexual assault. The University of California system and the American Association of University Women endorsed that bill.

Many Requirements

Colleges are already scrambling to respond better to campus sexual assault and comply with multiple federal laws, one higher-education lobbyist said on Wednesday.

Colleges are coordinating with two cabinet agencies (the Departments of Education and Justice) and three offices within them on three laws (Title IX, the Clery Act, and the recent Violence Against Women Act, which led to a new set of proposed regulations last month), said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "It doesn’t always add up to a clear picture of what is expected."

The annual surveys of students that would be required by Senator McCaskill's bill, Mr. Hartle said, are not necessary. "We are unaware of any definitive research that climate surveys will have a positive effect on reducing sexual assault on campus," he said.

What he would have welcomed, he said, was clarification of existing requirements of colleges.

Advocates had hoped that the bill might require more public information. If the Education Department discloses which colleges are being investigated under Title IX, what about the campus-crime-reporting law? "Investigations of the Clery Act should be listed as well," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, an advocacy group representing survivors and victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Still, student activists who have led the movement against campus sexual assault saw the bill as a step toward the greater enforcement they seek. A year ago, many rallied outside the Education Department, demanding tougher enforcement of Title IX and stricter sanctions when colleges fail to support victims of sexual assault.

Alexandra Brodsky, who helped lead the rally last July, was optimistic on Wednesday about long-term change. "We appreciate that the bill requires that continued transparency," she said, "so we are not subject to the will of changing departments."

The bill’s increased funding for campus grants by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women was, for Ms. Brodsky, another sign of progress. In the 2013 fiscal year, the program made only 28 awards out of 127 applications.

How quickly the main Senate bill and other legislation might move will become clearer in September, after Congress returns from its recess. Ms. McCaskill said on Wednesday that she hopes her bill will get to the floor that month. A companion bill in the House may be introduced in the next few days.