July 30--WASHINGTON -- Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and a bipartisan group of senators introduced on Wednesday legislation to combat college sexual assault.
Flanked by assault victims, one of whom fought back tears, McCaskill and three fellow Democratic senators and four Republican senators said their bill would strengthen sexual assault reporting and require better law enforcement coordination and better training for those who respond to victims on campuses.
One activist, former University of North Carolina student Annie Clark, who said she had been a victim of sexual assault, lauded the broad sponsorship of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.
"Rape is not a partisan issue," she said.
However, an organization representing school presidents says the bill falls short of clarifying conflicting laws and rules from myriad federal offices.
If passed, the legislation would require annual surveys of students about sexual violence and the reporting of the results, and it would require universities to designate and train confidential advisers for victims. It increases to $500,000 from $300,000, federal grants available for compliance with these new requirements.
The bill would take enforcement of cases involving student athletes away from athletic departments. A survey of 236 colleges and universities by McCaskill's office found that 20 percent reported that athletic departments played a role in investigating sexual assaults involving athletes.
The bill would mandate new campus resources and support services for alleged victims; require schools to enter into agreements with local law enforcement over how to handle sexual assault investigations; and institute penalties of up to 1 percent of the budgets of noncomplying schools. The largest could be subject to fines of tens of millions of dollars if they fail to comply.
"We have lived through an era where the victims and survivors were blamed," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor, said. "Those decades are over. Accountability has come."
McCaskill said that the legislation "represents a rare thing in Washington -- a truly collaborative, bipartisan effort" that "bodes well for our shared fight to turn the tide against sexual violence on our campuses."
But Terry Hartle, a senior vice president for the American Council on Education, said the bill did not address the concerns of colleges and universities that realize they have "a moral and legal obligation to provide a safe setting for our students."
He praised the confidentiality guidelines in the bill, and lauded sponsors for including language directing the federal government to clear up discrepancies between federal Title IX laws and crime-reporting statutes.
But Hartle said the bill appeared to have a top-down approach in clearing up often conflicting directives between the Departments of Education and Justice, the civil rights offices of both agencies, and the legal requirements and stipulations laid out in Title IX and in other federal laws that deal with sexual assault.
He was especially concerned about language giving the Education Secretary and top Education Department officials responsibility for clarifying discrepancies in crime-related definitions and crime-reporting guidelines, saying the Justice Department should do that.
"I very much appreciate the effort to provide some clarification, and I think that provision acknowledges there are problematic things," Hartle said. But asking the federal bureaucracy to fix problems without first understanding them from a university standpoint is "so flawed as to sow the seeds of further confusion."
"This legislation starts with the premise that we just regulate them a little more and we will get the outcome we want," Hartle said.
McCaskill and the American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of 1,700 colleges and universities, sparred in the lead-up to Wednesday's bill introduction.