This story has been updated.
A Senate committee explored possible responses to sexual assault in college Wednesday during a hearing that suggested there is bipartisan momentum for legislation to address what has emerged as a key issue on many campuses.
“There should be no question that sexual violence on campus is a widespread, growing and unacceptable problem,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “Simply put, in colleges and universities across the country, basic human rights are being violated.”
The committee heard from four senators, two Democrats and two Republicans, about a bill that would require colleges to provide confidential advisers to help students who report sexual violence. The bill also would require surveys every two years of students at each university to gauge the scope of the problem, with the results published online to inform parents and students, and it would establish new penalties for schools that fail to follow federal laws related to campus safety and gender discrimination.
“Parents want to be confident that their sons and daughters will be safe and have access to resources” at colleges, said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), one of the four co-sponsors of the bill. “Unfortunately that’s not always the case.”
Heller said the campus surveys would help the public compare the safety climate of all schools.
“Congress cannot legislate away sexual assault,” he said, but the bill would be “a step in the right direction toward combating this heinous crime.”
Other senators promoting the bill were Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). McCaskill said the bill has 33 co-sponsors: 12 Republicans and 21 Democrats. “That’s a bipartisan coalition we don’t see every day in the U.S. Senate,” she said.
In the past few years, sexual assault has seized attention in Washington and on campuses across the country. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll in June found that 20 percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted. Surveys of students at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere also have found evidence of widespread sexual misconduct.
Before the hearing, skeptics said they worried it would be one-sided. Families Advocating for Campus Equality, a group that seeks fairness and due process in college investigations of alleged sexual misconduct, said in a statement that it wants Congress to take into account the perspective of students accused of misconduct.
These students, the group said, “face the full weight of punitive consequences: suspension and/or expulsion from their college or university and the life-altering stigma of having been disciplined for ‘sexual assault’ when the sexual activity did not meet the standard of a criminal offense or even a violation of most social mores.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, raised the fairness issue with representatives of colleges and advocacy groups. “What can we do or not do to make sure that colleges are fair and protect the due process rights of both the accused and the accuser?” he asked.
Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, said there is a difference between disciplinary proceedings at a school and criminal proceedings. She said schools must be fair.
“We’re working our way through that right now,” she said. “It’s a difficult issue, as you might imagine.”
Dana Bolger, a 2014 graduate of Amherst College involved in an anti-sexual-assault group called Know Your IX, said the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX requires schools to be fair and equitable in handling cases. “At the end of the day, we’re all really on the same page here,” she said.