Bill aims to crack down on campus sexual assault

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) — A bipartisan group of eight senators on Wednesday introduced legislation to curb sexual assaults on the nation's college and university campuses.

The legislation is "aimed at flipping current incentives that result in sweeping sexual assaults under the rug," the sponsors said

The legislation would "better protect and empower students, and hold both perpetrators and institutions accountable" for campus sexual assaults, a statement from the senators said. The legislation would "remove sexual assault from the shadows by creating accountability and transparency on college campuses," the statement said.

Statistics show that approximately 19% of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault. Because many crimes are not reported, that number could be substantially higher, the senators said.

The bill would require colleges to conduct surveys aimed at gauging the scope of the problem on campus and gives Department of Education the power to punish schools that don't comply.

Prospects for passage this year are doubtful. Congress is leaving town for the summer at the end of the week and this bill is not yet on the agenda for September, when there are only a few weeks of legislative activity planned.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., one of the sponsors, said colleges now have no incentive to keep accurate records of sexual assault incidents. "With this bill, we are flipping the incentives," she said. "Underreporting will have stiff fines and real teeth. "

Several survivors of sexual assaults and advocates joined the senators at a briefing, including Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, founders of End Rape on Campus. "The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself," Clark said.

The proposal comes three weeks after a Senate subcommittee released a survey showing that 41% of a national sample of 236 colleges had conducted no investigations of alleged assaults over the last five years, even though some of those institutions reported sexual violence incidents to the Department of Education in that time.

The survey also found that just 16% of the national sample conducted campus surveys designed to assess the scope of the problem of sexual assault at their institution and how to respond appropriately. A recently created White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault recommended in April that all colleges conduct such surveys and said it will explore options to require schools to conduct a survey in 2016.

The two-year time frame was set to ensure that all colleges were using a "fully validated instrument," says Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on issues related to violence against women.

The senators, including Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced the new legislation after examining federal, state and local policies and consulting stakeholders. Others included Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Dean Heller, R-Nev.; and Mark Warner, D-Va.

"As the father of two women, one of whom started college in the fall, this is an issue that is important to me as a father as well as a senator," Heller said. "Our children should be focused on learning in a safe and productive environment, not about what dangers exist on their own campus."

Natasha McKenzie, vice president of the College Democrats of America, took a jab at Rubio. "While it's great news that Sen. Rubio has joined the many bipartisan voices working to end campus sexual assault, it's impossible to forget that he voted twice against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. At a time when nearly one in five women in the U.S. have been raped on and off campus, . . . Rubio's continued opposition to this important (and bipartisan) legislation shows how out of touch he is with the needs of young Americans."

Under the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, passed last year, public and private colleges must have a number of policies in place by this fall in order to participate in federal student aid programs. Among other things, schools are required to increase transparency about the scope of sexual violence on campus, to provide more information about standards in institutional conduct proceedings, and provide campus- and community-wide prevention educational programming.


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