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McCaskill praises White House plan but more work needed to combat campus rape

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, makes an opening statement during a Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance subcommittee hearing earlier in April. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Calling campus rape “a silent epidemic,”  Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a press conference she was pleased with the recommendations of the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault released Tuesday.

“It’s a first step,” she said. “A meaningful first step.”

But McCaskill, who sponsored a successful bill in the Senate to reform the handling of sexual assault cases in the military, said legislation may still be needed to address the problem of campus rape. ”There’s still a lot more work.”

As many as 19 percent of college women may have been victims of sexual assault, and only 13 percent report the attacks.

McCaskill praised the government’s new Web site as “a wonderful tool” to help victims navigate their way through a “labryinth of different laws.” But she stressed that the federal government cannot prosecute rape in most cases, something the general public may not understand.

She also applauded “the pretty powerful public service announcement,” featuring President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and such celebrities as Daniel Craig and Steve Carell, on “bystander intervention,” encouraging men to take responsibility by reporting and helping to stop sexual assaults.

Those efforts to aid victims are not enough. “We have to hold perpetrators accountable,” said McCaskill, who had a reputation for being tough on sex crimes during her tenure as prosecutor of Jackson County, Mo. She called Biden a “trailblazer” and credited his support of the Violence Against Women Act 20 years ago for “making a difference in the quantity and quality of prosecutions.”

McCaskill believes prosecutions of campus sexual assaults could have “a deterrent effect.” But getting those prosecutions isn’t easy. Victims have to be comfortable with reporting crimes to university officials and local enforcement, with their confidentiality guaranteed. State and local law enforcement must build relationships with campus police. And colleges have to stop being afraid of negative publicity from having sexual assaults reported and prosecuted.

“We saw this same self-preservation in the military and in the Catholic Church,” McCaskill said.

She stressed that the Department of Justice was “hamstrung” by inadequate resources to do time- and labor-intensive investigations of Title IX violations at schools that receive federal assistance. Sexual assault is considered a form of discrimination against women, which is prohibited under Title IX, more commonly associated with giving girls and women equal access to school athletics.

Determining appropriate sanctions for universities that fail to comply with Title IX could encourage campus officials to develop better policies for handling sexual assault cases. Removing all federal aid, including student loans, “seems silly,” McCaskill said, suggesting instead fines levied against an institution’s endowment fund.

To learn more about sexual assault on campus, earlier this month McCaskill sent out a comprehensive 18-page survey to 350 college presidents from the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight she chairs. Those results are due May 7.

After collecting the data, McCaskill has said the next step will be roundtable discussions with victims and rape survivors’ groups and with prosecutors, campus police, university administrators and Title IX officers.

The White House Task Force has also recommended that schools collect their own data from students by doing anonymous surveys to measure the prevalence of sexual assault on campus as well as get a sense of student attitudes and awareness.

The latest trend among college administrators has been to rebrand sexual assault, or rape, as “nonconsensual sex.”

When asked about it, McCaskill replied, “Nonconsensual sex is rape.” But such terms — like date rape in the past — reflect the complex laws regarding rape that differ among states. In some states, she explained, force or the threat of force must be used for assault to qualify as first-degree rape.

States need to update their laws, she said. “At one time, it was legal to rape your wife in the state of Missouri.” But no longer.

Several times during the press conference she stressed the fact that sex without consent is sexual assault.

“It is a crime and it is a felony.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.



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