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Bipartisan Support Builds For Fighting Sexual Assault On College Campuses

Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

A bipartisan group of senators -- including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- and several victims of sexual violence presented at a press conference on Wednesday their arguments for legislation they say is long overdue and necessary to push colleges and universities into doing more to protect students and rid their campuses of sexual predators.

“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,” McCaskill said.

For McCaskill, the 2011 suicide of Sasha Menu Courey, a 20-year-old University of Missouri student, nearly a year and a half after the young woman alleged that she had been sexually assaulted, is just one of the far too many stories she encountered during her months-long examination of sexual violence at colleges and universities across the country.

One in five female college students in the United States has been assaulted, according to a release issued by the senator. It is the stories of the survivors that put the emotion and sense of urgency behind those numbers of an estimated one in five students sexually assaulted.

Among those stories is the one from Andrea Pino, a co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus. She spoke of how she woke up one morning in a pool of blood with her body covered in bruises from an attack.  She says officials at her university told her that she “just couldn’t handle college.”

Susan, a mother from New York who didn't reveal her last name, explained how her daughter Anna, called home just 16 days into her freshman year to say that she had been sexually assaulted by a group of students.

“There are really no words to explain what a parent goes through when they get a phone call like that.  The pain is unimaginable,” she said. 

Susan said that in her daughter’s case, a college judicial board determined that the students allegedly involved were not responsible.  This happened, she said, despite an eyewitness statement and a report of corroborating physical evidence documented by a nurse who concluded Anna’s injuries were the result of sexual assault.

McCaskill applauded efforts by the University of Missouri to address the issue in the wake of Courey's death.  “The University of Missouri has really tried to break out of the pack here,” she said.

What the bill does

The bill’s sponsors say the legislation contains several components aimed at curbing sexual assault on campus by protecting and empowering students, and strengthening accountability and transparency for institutions. The proposal would:

  • Require schools to designate confidential advisors to coordinate support services, provide information about options for reporting the crime to campus authorities or law enforcement.
  • Prevent schools from punishing students who reveal such things as underage drinking when reporting a claim of sexual violence.
  • Require specialized training for school officials who deal with sexual violence.
  • Require schools to use one uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings. Athletic departments and other groups that may have a conflict of interest in investigating such matters would be barred from handling complains of sexual violence. (A survey conducted by McCaskill’s office earlier this year found that athletic departments were responsible for handling complaints of sexual violence at 20 percent of colleges and universities across the country.)
  • Require schools to enter into agreements with relevant local law enforcement agencies to establish clear responsibilities for handling claims of sexual violence and for sharing information about such crimes.

To establish a baseline of consistent information from colleges and universities across the U.S., all schools would be required to survey students about their experience with sexual violence. The surveys will not collect identifying information about the students, but the results will be made public. McCaskill, says the results of the surveys will help parents and prospective students know what schools are doing about sexual violence and whether they’re making progress or not. 
Some in higher education have raised questions about whether schools have the legal authority necessary to fully investigate such crimes. Currently, the Department of Education is investigating 55 colleges and universities for possible violations of federal law in how they handled claims of sexual assaults.

The big financial incentive for schools to comply with the law comes in what McCaskill describes as a realistic financial penalty of up to 1 percent of a school’s annual operating budget. She says the current potential penalty of a school losing all of its federal funding in the case of a violation is just not realistic and has never been imposed. That unrealistic threat contributes to lax enforcement on the part of schools, she added.  Under the bill, the penalty for violations of a separate federal law governing the reporting of such crimes increases from $35,000 to $150,000. 

Keeping it bipartisan
Both McCaskill and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the two lead co-sponsors of the bill, said that they are united in their effort to keep the bill's sponsorship strongly bipartisan. If lawmakers from one party want to join the list of co-sponsors, they must bring a colleague from the other party with them.  Other senators supporting the bill include Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. 

McCaskill and Gillibrand said they hope to advance the bill to the Senate floor this September and pass the measure before the end of the current legislative session.