U.S. Senate introduces a campus sexual assault bill

07/30/2014 6:20 PM

07/31/2014 3:24 PM

A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introduced legislation to streamline how colleges handle cases of sexual assault.

The Campus Safety and Accountability Act would increase penalties for colleges that break federal laws and mandate that they establish confidential advocates on all campuses for students affected by sexual violence.

“We are done with the days of asking victims why they drank too much or wore the wrong thing or went to the wrong place or hung out with the wrong guy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. “This measure is one whose time has truly come.”

A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the U.S. House. The last bill to combat campus sexual assault cleared Congress last year and will take effect Oct. 1.

The legislation comes as stories of colleges mishandling these cases become more common and inconsistencies among their sexual assault data are illuminated. It’s a political response to a swell of student advocacy work, 71 federal investigations and a White House task force that unveiled guidelines on the issue earlier this year.

Congress will leave Friday for a five-week recess. The Senate bill’s eight sponsors — including Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill and Florida Republican Marco Rubio — plan to bring the measure to the Senate floor in September.

The bill would enable the Department of Education to levy fines on colleges that break the related federal laws. Currently the department has the authority to withhold a school’s federal funding as punishment, but it has never done so.

Under the measure, schools that violate Title IX, which bans gender discrimination in education activities and programs supported by federal funds, would be fined up to 1 percent of their budgets for each deviation from the federal law. Colleges that violate the Clery Act — the federal law that requires colleges to report crime statistics — could be fined up to $150,000, a sharp increase from the current $35,000 cap.

The University of Kansas was recently added to a list of 71 colleges under federal investigation for its handling of campus sexual assault. At least one student at each of the schools listed has filed a Title IX complaint related to sexual violence.

Know Your IX, a national student rights group, had filed a petition earlier this year that called on Congress to “give teeth” to the Department of Education’s enforcement of Title IX.

Advocates and victims attended Wednesday’s news conference announcing the Senate bill, including Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of the group End Rape on Campus, and former students of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself,” Clark said.

Four women who had been sexually assaulted at their colleges spoke. Among them was a woman identified only as Anna, the focus of a recent New York Times story that delved into how Hobart and William Smith Colleges had adjudicated the sexual violence she faced freshman year.

“With this bill, no longer will women like Anna feel that she has no choice but to share her story with the whole world just to get her school’s attention,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

The measure would require colleges to administer surveys to their students that gauge campus culture surrounding sexual assault. Results from the anonymous surveys would be posted online, allowing others to compare “apples to apples,” McCaskill said.

The White House had recommended earlier this year that these “climate surveys” be mandated by 2016, but the matter has faced significant backlash from colleges.

While colleges, under the bill, would have to create confidential advisers for students who have been sexually assaulted, the administrators wouldn’t be able to punish the students for admitting to other infractions, such as drinking.

McCaskill had hosted three roundtables of students, advocates, university officials and law enforcement over the summer, as well as organized a nationwide survey of how colleges handle sexual assault. Her unscientific survey found that 20 percent of colleges have their athletic departments adjudicate these cases when they involve student athletes. The bill bans the practice.

“It 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,” Rubio said.

“Optimistic” that the bill would pass a gridlocked Congress, Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, a co-sponsor, joked: “There may actually be hope for us.”

To reach Stephanie Haven, send email to shaven@mcclatchydc.com.

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