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McCaskill introduces new bill to address sexual violence on campus

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she learned a lot from her unsuccessful run for governor in 2004.
Sen. McCaskill's Flickr page

More than 400 people a day call the national sexual assault hotline, three quarters of whom are college age or younger.

"Almost to a person, we hear stories about how the system failed them so we need this bill,” Scott Berkowitz of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)told reporters Thursday at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.

The legislation is a second attempt by U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., along with about a dozen Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, to address sexual violence on college and university campuses. 

“This strengthened, bipartisan bill is a reflection of the valuable input we heard from survivors, advocates, and universities, whose feedback has turned this legislation into smarter policy,” said McCaskill. 

Their first bill, introduced last July, also had strong bipartisan backing but never made it to the floor of the Senate before the 113th Congress went out of business in December. That bill ran into opposition by groups representing college and university presidents. At the time, they voiced concerns over possible legal conflicts and liabilities for schools investigating such crimes and the need to protect the due process rights of those accused.

Documents provided by McCaskill's office detail at least two changes included in this version of the legislation to address due process concerns.  First, individuals accused of sexual misconduct are referred to in this bill as "accused students" rather than "assailants."  Another change requires institutions to provide both a victim and an accused student with written notice of plans to move ahead with disciplinary proceedings regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct, within 24 hours of that decision.  Schools would also be required to give such notice with a sufficient amount of time in advance of such a hearing.

A spokesman for the American Council on Education said the organization was not prepared to offer a comment on this version of the bill yet, as its legislative experts have not had an opportunity to review the new language.    

McCaskill said she visited 48 Missouri colleges and universities as she sought input for this legislation, which she says she's confident will pass.

“To truly curb these crimes, we’ve got to have a road map for college and universities to increase responsiveness when crimes occur, better protect and empower students, and establish better informed guidelines that actually have some teeth,” said McCaskill.

For McCaskill, her legislative efforts to address campus sexual violence were influenced by the alleged sexual assault of University of Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Corey and her suicide.  After urging the university to investigate the matter, McCaskill’s office conducted a survey of more than 400 colleges and universities and found that more than 40 percent of those schools responding had not conducted any investigations during the previous five years, despite allegations by possible victims.

McCaskill used that survey’s results to push last year’s bill and as a foundation for one of the provisions in the new bill to require every two years anonymous surveys of students about their experiences with sexual violence on campus. Survey results will be published online, allowing parents and high school students to consider the information as they evaluate colleges and universities.

Other provisions of the bill include:

  • New campus resources and support services: Schools will have confidential advisors to aid students with sexual harassment, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, among other issues.
  • Fairness in campus disciplinary process: All schools will use a uniform system for student disciplinary proceedings.  Athletic departments are barred from handling such complaints. 
  • Training standards for on-campus personnel: Specialized training will be provided for confidential advisors, investigating personnel, and those involved in disciplinary proceedings.
  • Campus accountability and coordination with law enforcement: Schools must have written memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement agencies establishing clear responsibilities for investigations and the sharing of information in such cases. 
  • Enforceable Title IX and stiffer penalties for violations of the Cleary Act: Schools that don't comply with the law could face the loss of up to 1 percent of their operating budget. Currently, the only penalty for Title IX violations is the loss of all federal student aid – and that has has never been assessed against any school and is largely dismissed as not practical.  (Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender in educational programs and activities receiving federal funding.)  Schools violating the Cleary Act would see penalties increased from the current $35,000 to $150,000 per violation. (Named for Jeanne Cleary, a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who was raped and murdered in her dorm in 1986, the act requires colleges and universities receiving federal money to compile and report crimes on and around their campuses.)   

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of the organization End Rape On Campus, are former students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and survivors of sexual violence.  The two joined in the news conference and were instrumental in drafting both last year’s and this year's bills.

Clark, Pino, McCaskill and Gillibrand attended a Wednesday night screening of the documentary “The Hunting Ground” at the White House.  The film examines sexual assaults at colleges and universities across the United States.

The documentary was featured at last month’s Sundance Film Festival and is set to open in select theaters across the U.S. today.