Sexual assault bill ensures sensitivity

By Editorial Board

From the retracted Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia  to TIME Magazine dubbing sexual violence on campus a “crisis” on its May 2014 cover, the frequency of sexual assaults at colleges and universities has remained a controversial topic in the media in recent years. 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while attending college. Despite this alarming statistic, 40 percent of colleges have not investigated alleged sexual violence in the last five years, according to a 2014 Senate subcommittee report. 

The Campus Accountability & Safety Act, a bill currently pending in the Senate, aims to reform how colleges and universities handle sexual assault accusations and investigations on campuses. 

The bipartisan bill, proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo), would require colleges to designate confidential advisors to support and accommodate victims and provide guidance in reporting crime to law enforcement. Minimum training standards would be mandated for employees who are involved in investigations and student discipline, and all colleges would be required to use a standard disciplinary process, rather than allowing different departments, such as athletic or academic departments to handle sexual violence complaints independently. 

Only 12 percent of sexual assault victims report an alleged offense to a college employee or law enforcement authorities, according to a 2015 poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. Victims said they were deterred from reporting their experiences for fear of  losing friends or being accused of lying. The detailed and uniform requirements proposed by CASA would help eliminate this fear by ensuring that victims are treated with dignity and sensitivity. 

Students would also be surveyed annually about their experiences with sexual violence on campus. The legislation requires publication of responses and data on both the university and the Department of Education websites. Making those statistics public would force colleges to acknowledge the reality of the campus climate and would ultimately benefit  both the students and administration. Though the 1990 Clery Act requires colleges to log and disclose sex crime statistics in an Annual Campus Security Report, those statistics are useless if only 12 percent of sex crimes are being reported. 

The bill also calls for increased collaboration between colleges and local law enforcement by establishing a protocol for investigations and communication. This measure has proven necessary, as 70 percent of colleges do not have a protocol for working with local law enforcement, according to the 2014 Senate subcommittee report. Collaboration should be encouraged, as 

law enforcement officers are trained to deal with sex crimes and have more investigative resources than a college.

The bill also authorizes creating a method that would allow victims to anonymously share information about crimes with law enforcement through the confidential advisor. Because of this confidentiality, students with reservations about reporting alleged crimes to police are protected, and law enforcement can still gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. 

If the bill is passed, colleges that do not comply can be penalized up to one percent of the institution’s operating budget or fined up to $150,000 per violation. Currently, colleges that violate the Clery Act are subject to a maximum fine of $35,000. Enforcing more stringent financial consequences would ensure universities are held accountable and would better prevent them from continually sweeping accusations and investigations under the rug. 

The bill’s greatest strength is recognizing the sensitivity needed in an investigation from start to finish. If CASA’s provisions are properly implemented, victims can be assured that their pain and concerns are handled responsibly throughout the process. The confidential advising would be an indispensable resource, as the bill clearly outlines advisors’ roles of informing victims of their rights, options and consequences. If more students are empowered to come forward, the stigma surrounding victims will diminish.  

The anonymity afforded throughout the process also plays a vital role in changing the campus climate. Allowing confidential advisors to report crimes to police without forcing the victim to pursue a legal investigation can ensure that law enforcement’s strengths, such as investigating and cracking down on crimes using forensic tools, can be used while maintaining a victim’s dignity throughout the process. 

Statistics show colleges need to do more to protect students on campus, and enacting CASA is an effective strategy. The threat of severe financial consequences will ensure that colleges and universities are held accountable for their role in reducing sexual assault. By creating resources for students and requiring standardized training for university employees, students and their colleges can begin working together for a tangible, long-term strategy for reducing sexual harassment and assaults on campus.