Sometimes it was easy to lose sight of the victims of rape during the first roundtable discussion on campus sexual assault hosted Monday by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). There was talk of the problems with reported crime statistics from institutions. There was talk of how to punish those schools who fail to report crimes accurately. And there was talk of mandatory surveys in order to elicit more accurate information on the true incidence of sexual assaults.
When Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, spoke up, the audience was reminded the victims were the reason for all the talk.
Dunn is a survivor of a campus gang rape.
She was among the panel of seven that included rape victim advocates, college and government administrators and law enforcement representatives, plus Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) at the first of three roundtable discussions scheduled by McCaskill, who has turned her attention to sexual assault on the nation’s college campuses after sponsoring successful legislation to overhaul policies regarding rape in the military.
McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, is working with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to craft legislation to combat campus sexual assaults. It’s been estimated that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during college. The White House has also formed a task force to address the issue.
Monday’s roundtable focused on the Clery Act and the Campus SaVE Act. Enacted in 1992, the Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal student financial aid for students to collect, keep and publish crime statistics. The Campus SaVE act, included in the 2013 renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, expands Clery to include domestic violence, dating violence and stalking when reported to either campus or local police, and offers additional guidelines for handling investigations and disciplinary proceedings for sexual assault cases.
In her introductory remarks to the panel, McCaskill warned of the “complex labyrinth between different rules, different standards of proof, different state statues.”
One example? “We can’t even agree on the definition of consent,” she said. Legal definitions of rape and consent vary from state to state; some require force be used to qualify as rape, while others fail to recognize intoxication as preventing the ability to give consent.
Using models and incentives could lead to more uniform statutes among states, McCaskill said. “Then we could compare apples to apples” when looking at crime statistics of different campuses.
The data now reported under the Clery Act is not always considered accurate or reliable. Schools may try to fudge their numbers, afraid of scaring off potential students and their parents. Yet anyone looking at a school posting 60 sexual assaults versus a school reporting none should realize “the zero is unsafe,” said Alison Kiss, executive director at the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
“Zero should be a red flag,” McCaskill said. The school “is not reporting and not taking the problem seriously.”
The “stick” for punishing violations to the Clery Act is minor for many schools: up to a $35,000 fine, which, as McCaskill pointed out, isn’t much to a large university with a $2 billion or $3 billion annual budget.
The other deterrent is the loss of student financial aid for that institution, but McCaskill likened it to making an unrealistic threat to keep her kids from misbehaving. They soon return to their bad behavior because they know she won’t really do what she threatened.
Instead, higher fines are needed to serve as an effective deterrent, especially for wealthier schools.
Mandatory anonymous climate surveys may be the key to collecting data to provide a more accurate picture of campus sexual assault, most of the participants agreed, although it was argued that the cost was a prohibitive factor for some schools.
“Don’t give money to wealthy schools,” requested Dunn. “If you’re going to spend money somewhere, please spend it on enforcement.”
Just 13 auditors are available to review Clery compliance at some 7,000 colleges and universities, said Lynn Mahaffie, director of policy for the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid. She did say that number was expected to double.
Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, expressed concern about “adding more sticks with no new carrots” — such as resources for enforcement and prevention programs. She discussed innovative approaches at Michigan, which is tracking the effectiveness of new programs.
McCaskill expressed disappointment that more colleges had failed to put more efforts into creative solutions. “If this problem is causing such stress to universities … what I don’t understand is why we’re not getting more innovation from college campuses.”
Balancing the rights of the victim against the issue of public safety was another hot button for the group. Although some schools discourage students from going to local police simply by the way they present the choices to the victim, McCaskill’s prosecutorial background was evident as she argued for reporting sexual assault to the local police, while Dunn defended each victim’s right to choose.
Yet Dunn admitted that many perpetrators of sexual assault are repeat offenders. “I shock people by talking about repeat perpetrators,” Dunn said.
McCaskill expressed frustration over repeat offenders as well and the need for prosecution.
“If you want to solve this, make victims comfortable,” Dunn said. “We know in our bones when it’s not safe (to report a rape).”
“The loneliest journey is when you think no one is on your side,” McCaskill said.