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McCaskill Seeks Stronger, More Sympathetic Response To Victims Of Campus Sexual Assault

Rebecca Smith/St. Louis Public Radio

As far as sexual assaults on a college campus are concerned, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill says no news is definitely not good news.

McCaskill, D-Mo., came to Harris-Stowe State University Monday as part of her continuing efforts to strengthen colleges’ responses to sexual assault – responses that she says too often are half-hearted or, at their worst, harmful to the victim.

And, she says, too many campuses want to make themselves look good by claiming they had no sexual assault investigations over the past five years, when she knows that such a situation rarely if ever exists.

“That should be a danger sign,” she told representatives of a dozen local colleges and universities, plus people from local law enforcement and prosecutors. “That should not be reassurance that that campus is safe. That should be a sign they don’t have systems in place to hear reports, to handle reports and to conduct investigations…. That means a university is not taking it as seriously as it should.”

At a news conference, she added:

“I would never send my child to a university that had not had any reports of sexual assault in five years.”

After taking on sexual assault in the military, McCaskill – a former prosecutor -- has turned her attention to the same issue on campus. She helped lead a bipartisan group of senators in putting together the Campus Safety and Accountability act, legislation to give victims clearer options on how to report assaults and put more pressure on universities to improve their reporting and investigating procedures.

According to available data, McCaskill has said, about 19 percent of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault. But because many crimes go unreported, that number could be substantially higher.

Under Title IX, she told the hour-long session, better information is needed to get more of a handle on the size of the problem and devise possible remedies.

“This is about collecting good data,” McCaskill said. “The thing that concerns me the most is that 40 percent of campuses have not had any sexual investigation in five years. I think we all know that’s wrong. That means sexual assaults are occurring in those places, they are just not reported and investigations are not happening.”

But, she told reporters after the session, it’s also about making sure that students who are the victims of sexual assault have a clear path to follow in its aftermath.

The one change she would make if she could mandate it, McCaskill said, would be “making sure that every university had a single access point that every student knew about, and at that access point would be someone who would keep the information confidential under the law, but provide strong support and good information about the choices that victim has going forward.

“And that access point would have to be available 24-7 and widely known on campus. That probably is the single most important reform that needs to occur.”

Once a student gets into the university’s system, McCaskill added, it’s important that questions asked during the investigation not make a bad situation worse.

“The adjudication processes at various universities across the country have widely varied,” she said. “Some have highly trained people and competent, good investigators that are investigating these complaints. Others have been very haphazard and look like more kangaroo courts.

“The interviewing of victims should never be done by someone, especially the first interview, who hasn’t had training in the appropriate way to interview a victim of sexual assault.”

When that happens, victims who should be encouraged to pursue their cases if they choose can instead decide to just shut down.

“If a victim who is already nervous,” McCaskill said, “already afraid they’ve done something wrong, if they start getting questions about what they had on, and how much they had to drink, and how often they’ve had sex, and with whom, then of course that’s just going to confirm all the fears they have that somehow this is their fault.

“Instead, the interview needs to be about what they remember, and when they remember, and what were the things they remember most vividly. Because the memory of a sexual assault victim, especially one who’s been drinking, comes in fragments. They may not remember all of it at once. But they remember enough that they know they have been victimized, and that’s the essence of what that first interview ought to be about.”

She said that the wide disparity between the number of colleges that indicated they had expelled someone involved in a sexual assault compared with those that had pursued a criminal prosecution reveals “a real chasm with this problem.”

'Hardly anybody does this once. This is not a crime of lust. This is a crime of power and domination.' -- Sen. Claire McCaskill, on sexual assault

“That is why a memorandum of understandings with police departments is important,” she said. “One of the participants today said we mention it in passing in a letter. That’s a lot different than having a face-to-face conversation with the victim and saying, you need to understand that these crimes never occur only once, and as you make your decision, as hard as it might be, know that you could be protecting other women in the future by having the courage and the willingness to come forward.

“There has really been a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the system to encourage the victim to go forward in the criminal justice system by providing good, solid information in a timely manner.”

Of the perpetrators, she added: “Hardly anybody does this once. This is not a crime of lust. This is a crime of power and domination.”

During the session, McCaskill asked campus representatives for a show of hands on a variety of topics, such as: Do they think students on their campus have a clear understanding of what to do in the wake of a sexual attack?

“If I wake up on Saturday morning and I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed,” she said, “raise your hands if you are confident that a young woman knows there is a place on her campus where she can go that morning.”

Viewing the number of hands that were raised, McCaskill replied: “I think it’s great that you’re confident that they know it. But I bet if this room was filled with students, I wouldn’t see so many hands.”

Deborah Burris, who is Title IX coordinator at the University of Missouri-St. Louis as part of her job as the chief diversity officer on campus, said she thought the session could help create a good dialogue not only with McCaskill but among the various institutions.

Will the proposed legislation make a difference?

“I think it will definitely help,”Burris said. “Again, any time you bring more attention to an issue, just making people more aware, that in itself will be very beneficial because as we do more to get information out to the students, as we inform our community, our faculty, our staff, and our students about the issues at hand.

“When they are more informed, then they can take more proactive steps. To prevent it, first of all. I think that is the key, to prevent sexual assaults on campuses by some of the bystander intervention programs, through the ‘Speak Up and Speak Out,’ by empowering the students to take more control of their environment as well, and then the university, having the proper procedures and policies in place to make sure that when something does happen that appropriate action is taken."

Just last week, the university system’s board of curators approved unanimously new rules governing sexual assault designed to strengthen its responses to Title IX violations.

McCaskill said her legislation has widespread bipartisan support and, after it gets a few tweaks based on what she is hearing during a statewide tour on the topic, she is hoping for unanimous approval after next month’s elections.

“That’s my goal,” she said. “I would like to get this legislation to the point that we have unanimous support. I think that this problem deserves it.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.