J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senators present new campus sexual assault legislation

Campus Safety and Accountability Act calls for uniform approach to sexual assault and new standards for training staff

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at increasing transparency and providing more uniform standards for how college campuses deal with sexual violence, a move that comes as a growing number of U.S. college students file federal complaints alleging their schools mishandled their sexual assault cases.

A group of eight senators including Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters during a press conference that the new Campus Safety and Accountability Act was “survivor-centered.”

McCaskill said the legislation "imposes irrefutable responsibilities on schools. It provides in effect an enforceable bill of rights."

The Campus Safety and Accountability Act would require colleges to designate confidential advocates to help survivors of sexual assault navigate the options for reporting assaults to campus authorities or law enforcement, as well as requiring them to adhere to minimum training standards for all campus employees involved in the sexual assault investigation and disciplinary process.

The bill would also force colleges to administer anonymous “climate” surveys to students about campus sexual assaults and publish the results online, so students and parents can have an informed picture of how different universities handle sexual assault.

Schools would need to use a “uniform process” for disciplinary proceedings of sexual assault cases, involving coordination with local law enforcement, so that jurisdiction issues don’t hamper investigations. Athletic departments or other campus groups would no longer be allowed to handle sexual assault complaints.

A common complaint from college students who have come forward to report sexual violence has been that campus officials were not adequately trained to deal with their cases sensitively — placing the blame on victims for what they were doing at the time of the assaults or allowing fellow students, school departments or other untrained personnel to adjudicate disciplinary hearings.

Finally, Wednesday’s legislation called for financial penalties for schools that don’t comply with the legislation — up to 1 percent of a school’s operating budget for violations of Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in any school or school activity that receives federal funds, and that college students have invoked in recent years to protest how their schools handled their sexual assault cases.

The Department of Education in 2011 sent a guidance letter to all institutions, instructing them that “sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.”

Currently, being found in violation of Title IX would involve revoking all of a school’s Title IX funding, a huge financial penalty that has never been given. As a result, activists have said the law has no teeth.

The law also calls for an increase in fines for violations of the Clery Act to $150,000 from the current $35,000.

The Jeanne Clery Act, named after a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed in 1986, requires U.S. colleges to accurately report campus crime statistics to the Department of Education annually. But rape victims have routinely complained that their campuses discouraged them from formally reporting their sexual assault cases, possibly to keep campus rape numbers low in reporting Clery Act statistics.

Earlier in July, McCaskill’s office released the results of an anonymous survey given to more than 300 U.S. colleges and universities about how they deal with sexual assault, and the findings were grim. More than 40 percent of the colleges and universities polled didn’t conduct a single sexual assault investigation on their campuses within the past five years, even though federal law requires them to do so if they have reason to believe a crime occurred.

The survey found that many schools investigated fewer sexual assault cases than the number they reported to the government each year, indicating that they had likely known that assaults took place but chose to ignore them.

“We will not allow these crimes to be swept under the rug any longer,” said Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a release. “Students deserve real safety and accountability instead of empty promises. Simply put, they deserve action, because the price of a college education should not include a one in five chance of being sexually assaulted.”

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