Protecting college and university students from sexual assault is the goal of a new bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Among the group of senators announcing the proposed legislation was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has also fought for changes in the way the military handles sexual assault cases.
She was joined by Anna, a young woman who reported being raped multiple times while a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Anna’s mother and other sexual assault survivors.
Gillibrand said the only way for Anna to be heard was to relive the darkest moments of her life with a New York Times reporter, who featured her story in the July 12 edition.
According to the story, Anna was an 18-year-old freshman who had been on campus for just two weeks when she said she was raped by several members of the football team. The men were cleared just 12 days later by a school disciplinary hearing.
“I was so moved by her story and the way she spoke out,” Gillibrand said in a telephone conference after participating in the introduction of the Campus Safety and Accountability Act.
She said she was also moved by Anna’s mother, who told what it is like to be a mother whose daughter was brutally raped, and have the school turn its back on her.
Hobart and William Smith students, staff and faculty are now looking into ways in which reports of sexual assault can be handled more effectively, according to the Times article.
Gillibrand said her office has heard from many young women in recent months about campus sexual assaults and that she shares their outrage in how they are handled.
She said young women attending college in American are more likely to be sexually assaulted than those who do not go to college.
At the same time, institutions of higher education across the country have been unable or unwilling to adequately address the problem, also inadequately addressed by federal laws, which Gillibrand said actually give colleges incentives not to report, fearing it will negatively impact enrollment numbers.
The proposed bill calls for requiring colleges and universities to designate confidential advisors for victims to coordinate support services, inform them of reporting options and provide guidance and assistance in reporting the crime to campus authorities and local law enforcement.
Gillibrand said the bill shifts the burden from victims to the colleges and universities, which could face fines of up to 1 percent of their operating budgets for not complying with Title IX, and raises Clery Act violations from $35,000 to $150,000.
As an example, Gillibrand said Harvard University has a $4.2 billion budget so it could face a fine of up to $42 million.
Title IX, signed into law in June 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The 1990 Clery Act requires all colleges and universities receiving federal financial aid to keep and disclose information about crime on or near their campuses.
To encourage individuals to report attacks, schools would no longer be allowed to sanction a student who reveals a violation in good faith, such as underage drinking, in the process of reporting a sexual violence claim.
The legislation ensures that everyone from the confidential advisors, to those responsible for investigating and participating in disciplinary proceedings, will receive specialized training to ensure they have a firm understanding of the nature of these crimes and their effect on survivors.
New historic transparency requirements would also be put into effect, surveying students at every university in the country about their experiences with sexual violence.
Gillibrand said the surveys will help provide an accurate picture of the problem. For instance, she said if a survey indicates 10 percent of men and women were raped, but only one incident was reported, that will show a school is not doing what it is supposed to be doing to have survivors come forward.
Survey results would be published online so parents and high school students could take them into consideration when choosing an institution of higher learning. In addition, the Department of Education would be required to publish the names of schools with pending investigations, final results and voluntary resolution agreements related to Title IX.
The proposed act would also require schools use a uniform process for campus disciplinary procedures. Athletic departments or other subgroups would not be allowed to handle complaints of sexual violence by their members. Schools would also have to enter into an agreement with local law enforcement to share information and focus on solving the crime, rather than debating jurisdiction.
Gillibrand said jurisdictional questions came into play in the investigation into the disappearance of Suzanne Lyall, a student at State University at Albany in 1998 when she went missing. Gillibrand said she was never found because police did not have a memorandum of understanding with the school and the investigation was bungled in the first 24 hours because no one knew who was in charge.
Gillibrand, noting American college students have a one in five chance of being sexually assaulted, said the bill will finally force colleges and universities to face the problem head on; that it will lift the burden off the shoulders and survivors and place it squarely on colleges and universities.
She said she hopes to have the legislation passed before the 113th Congress adjourns at the end of the year and a new Congress is seated in January.
“I’m very optimistic we’ll get it done this year,” she said, noting it is an opportunity for this Congress to accomplish something.
Gillibrand said she will be asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for floor time in September or right after the elections and expects to get more co-sponsors.
Among the current co-sponsors are Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who successfully led the charge in a June filibuster against Gillibrand’s proposed legislation to have decisions on handling sexual assaults in the military removed from the military chain of command.
Other Senate co-sponsors who announced the bill are Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The senators have been working together for months to examine federal, state, and local policies, collect feedback from stakeholders and craft bipartisan legislation to better protect and empower students and hold both perpetrators and institutions accountable.
A 2000 Justice Department report estimated that less than 5 percent of victims of rape attending college report their attack.
An investigative series from the nonprofit, non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, completed in 2010, found that in many cases, victims wishing to report sexual assault experienced confusion over how to report, confusion over acceptable standards of conduct and definitions of rape and sexual assault, and a fear of punishment for activities preceding some assaults, such as underage drinking.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education, college campuses reported nearly 5,000 forcible sex offenses in 2012, putting college women at a higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college bound peers.