A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introduced legislation designed to curb the striking number of sexual assaults on college campuses. The measure would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assault on campuses, and impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law’s requirements.
The legislation comes as the White House is putting increased pressure on colleges and universities. The administration formed a task force in January to address the issue, and the group found that 1 in 5 female college students in the United States has been assaulted.
“Very rarely does a bill become a truly collaborative process, and this bill has been truly collaborative and bipartisan,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has spent the last several months studying the problem of sexual assault on campus.
Earlier this year, the Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities that are under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. It was the first time a comprehensive list of colleges under investigation for potential violations of federal anti-discrimination law under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was made public, further pressuring Congress to act.
The new measure would require every university in the United States to conduct anonymous surveys of students about their experience with sexual violence on campus, with the results published online. The survey, which had been pushed for by sexual assault victims, is similar to one conducted by the military, and would allow parents and high school students to make comparative choices.
The bill would also increase the financial risk for schools that do not comply with certain requirements of the bill, like conducting the surveys. Schools would face possible penalties of up to 1 percent of their operating budget. Previously, universities that violated student rights in sexual assault cases risked the loss of federal funding, but the punishment was never been applied and lawmakers said it was impractical.
The bill increases penalties under the Clery Act - a federal law requiring all colleges and universities receiving federal financial aid to disclose information about campus crimes - to up to $150,000 per violation, from $35,000. Last year, the Department of Education fined Yale University $165,000 for failing to disclose four sexual offenses involving force that had occurred over several years, and other schools have also been fined.
The proposed legislation would also require colleges and universities to provide confidential advisers to help victims report their crime and receive services. Schools would be prohibited from punishing a student for things like underage drinking if they are reporting a sexual violence claim.
Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of End Rape on Campus, a group that provides support for students who are filing sexual assault complaints, also attended the news conference.
Clark said that after she reported being raped to administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was told that rape is like a football game and that she should look back at the game and figure out what she had done wrong.
At Occidental College, Clark said, students accused of rape are punished by being assigned book reports.
“This is the state of colleges and universities in America,” she said “and we have the power to change that.”
Pino spoke of waking up one Sunday morning in a pool of blood with bruises from her attack.
“I was told I just couldn’t handle college,” she said.
Some colleges expressed concerns about the legislation.
“Colleges are simply unable to play judge, jury and executioner when they’re already having trouble playing educator,” Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said in a written statement. “Resources are limited and colleges must put their focus on their primary objective: education.”
The bill attracted a diverse group of co-sponsors, including McCaskill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa; and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., as well as other members of both parties.
The bill, “aims to codify much of what the Department of Education is already encouraging or requiring universities to do as part of their obligations under Title IX,” said Erin Buzuvis, a professor at the Western New England University School of Law and expert on Title IX. “However, it makes a big difference to have these requirements spelled out in a statute versus a policy interpretation issued by the agency, because a statute is more permanent.”
The provisions of this legislation that would create financial penalties for noncompliance “is a real game-changer,” Buzuvis added, “because it creates, for the first time, an incentive for universities to address campus sexual assault in a proactive manner.”
“Our students deserve better than this,” Gillibrand said. “The price of a college education should not include a 1-in-5 chance of being sexually assaulted.”