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A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Wednesday aimed at addressing the rampant problem of sexual assault on college campuses that would increase transparency and accountability, including penalizing institutions with fines.
The bill’s sponsors — four Republicans and four Democrats — argue that the measure would reverse the cover-up culture that exists on campuses by encouraging colleges to prevent sexual assault, get rid of sexual predators and educate students and university officials about the problem.
“This bill represents a rare thing in Washington — a truly collaborative, bipartisan effort — and that bodes well for our shared fight to turn the tide against sexual violence on our campuses,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered, and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable. That’s what our legislation aims to accomplish.”
The move comes weeks after McCaskill, one of the bill’s sponsors, released the results of an unprecedented survey of 350 college and university presidents that showed that more than 40 percent of the schools had not conducted a sexual assault investigation over the last five years and that a third of schools didn’t provide any training to students.
Under the bill, college students nationwide would be surveyed about their experiences of sexual assault, an effort aimed at getting a fuller picture of the problem. The most commonly cited statistic is that 1 in 5 women are assaulted on college campuses. Dozens of schools, including Harvard and Indiana, are under investigation for their handling of sexual assault on their campuses.
The reporting and investigative procedures vary widely from campus to campus, a situation the bill aims to address by creating a uniform process that includes campus and local law enforcement authorities.
“It creates a system where there is no special preference because somebody can dunk a basketball or throw a ball 80 yards down the field,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “It creates a uniform, reliable system where a survivor can go to someone in a confidential setting and get accurate advice about what their options are.”
Among the provisions of the bill are:
- Minimum training standards for on-campus personnel: Currently, a chronic lack of training of on-campus personnel hampers sexual assault investigations and disciplinary processes, often resulting in negative outcomes for survivors. This legislation ensures that everyone from the confidential advisers, to those responsible for investigating and participating in disciplinary proceedings, will now receive specialized training to ensure they have a firm understanding of the nature of these crimes and their effect on survivors.
- New campus resources and support services for student survivors: Under this legislation, colleges and universities will be required to designate confidential advisers who will serve as a confidential resource for victims of assaults committed against a student. The role of confidential advisers will be to coordinate support services and accommodations for survivors, to provide information about options for reporting, and to provide guidance or assistance, at the direction of the survivor, in reporting the crime to campus authorities and/or local law enforcement. To encourage individuals to come forward with reports about sexual violence, schools will no longer be allowed to sanction a student who reveals a violation in good faith, such as underage drinking, in the process of reporting a sexual violence claim.
- Enforceable Title IX penalties and stiffer penalties for Clery Act violations: Schools that don’t comply with certain requirements under the bill may face a penalty of up to 1 percent of the institution’s operating budget. Previously, the only allowable penalty was the loss of all financial aid which is not practical and has never been done. The bill increases penalties for Clery Act violations to up to $150,000 per violation from the current penalty of $35,000.
The bill’s bipartisan backing echoes the broad support for efforts around curbing sexual assault in the military, efforts led by McCaskill and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), co-sponsors of the military measure. The other co-sponsors of the collegiate bill are Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“Our bill has provisions to ensure that colleges treat sexual assault cases with the seriousness they deserve,” Grassley said. “This includes better coordination with law enforcement and clearer expectations for how colleges should handle reports of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not some mere code of conduct violation. It is a major criminal offense. Like with any crime, weak enforcement makes the problem worse. This bill will start to turn that around.”
Passage of the bill is unlikely over the next several months, as Congress is set to leave for its five-week long August recess later the week, and there are few days left for legislation in the run-up to the November elections.
On Wednesday, House and Senate lawmakers turned their attention to several women’s issues. The Senate Judiciary hearing held a hearing on guns and domestic violence. House Republicans rolled out a legislative package around work flexibility, job training and charter schools that they said would appeal to women voters.
The moves represent a broader election year push to rally women in November and comes as President Obama has also focused on the issue of campus sexual assault. In April, the White House released a 20-page report, encouraging colleges and universities to survey their students next year, and possibly start to mandate such surveys by 2016.
On the House side, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) joined by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), will introduce a companion bill as early as Thursday, or immediately after the August recess.
“Rape is a horrific crime that exacts a physical and psychological toll on survivors,” Maloney said in a statement. “Women trying to get an education shouldn’t have to worry that they might also be victimized by predators on their campuses.”