Time to get serious about sexual assault on campus

05/19/2014 9:06 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

If there were a medal of valor for members of Congress, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand would deserve it for their success in reforming the U.S. military. Thanks largely to their efforts, the armed services must radically change the way they investigate and prosecute sexual assault.

The senators dissected the chain of command, examined policies and procedures, and tackled a culture that was more inclined to protect accused sexual predators than to protect and vindicate the victims, who were usually female.

More than 30 new provisions are now in law. It is now a crime for a member of the military to retaliate against someone filing a complaint. Commanders may no longer overturn convictions. Dishonorable discharge is the very least that happens after a member of the military is convicted of sexual assault.

Now McCaskill and Gillibrand have turned their attention to a scene where sexual assault is just as egregious and indulged with similar laxity by officials: college campuses.

This time, the sacred cows are fraternity row, university athletic departments and institutional prestige. Also at play are the public’s attitudes about young people, alcohol and sexual violence.

Much like the military, colleges and universities all too often react to sexual assault first and foremost to shield the institution, not to help the victims. A common complaint is that when allegations are made college officials hesitate to investigate or try to dissuade victims from filing criminal complaints. The senators aim to get campuses to increase reporting and change the ways they respond to sexual assault.

One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, according to a 2007 study conducted for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. The statistic by itself is an argument starter. Cite it and you’ll be accused of crusading against young men and of excusing the unladylike drinking of female coeds.

True, a drunk young woman is more gullible than a sober one. She can be counted on to make unwise choices. But that doesn’t mean she’s fair game to be assaulted.

What many don’t realize is that colleges and universities receiving federal funding are required by law to provide a safe campus for everyone, regardless of gender. And when they allow an administrative process that is barely a scolding to suffice, they permit attacks to carry on.

Mandated reporting of incidents is lax, federal staff to force cooperation isn’t sufficient, and too much confusion exists within university staff of their obligations under laws of equality such as the Title IX and the Clery Act.

The senators recognize these complications. Giving universities the incentive to do better is their goal.

To start, Sen. McCaskill sent surveys to 450 universities and colleges around the country, asking for input. She promised confidentiality and inquired about current practices.

Red flags went up immediately. So much so that the American Council on Education made available a free webinar to counsel campuses on how to answer. McCaskill wasn’t pleased and accused the council of helping colleges to dodge.

Yet nearly 200 colleges have returned their surveys, the senator’s office reports.

The senators also have the firm backing of the administration.

College should be the launching pad to a solid, successful adult life. But nearly adult is not adult. And the trauma of abuse, especially mishandled, can lead to depression, drugs, and alcohol to cope or to dropping out of school.

For decades, universities have been sloughing off the dusty old responsibility of “in loco parentis.” Very well, but they have to live up to real responsibility — legal liability — before the scourge of sexual assault is under control.

To reach Mary Sanchez call 816-234-4752 or email msanchez@kcstar.com or Twitter@msanchezcolumn.

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