WASHINGTON – The sponsor of legislation intended to strengthen procedures for dealing with instances of sexual assault on the nation’s college campuses maintains the current system is “broken” and that victims too often are made to feel responsible for the actions of their attackers.
Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on Tuesday that almost 20 percent of college women are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault during their undergraduate years, a number that “should shake the conscience of all of us.”
Such incidents, she said, demand action – “too many young women’s lives are being changed forever for us to accept the status quo.”
Gillibrand, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), has introduced the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, which carries bipartisan support – six Republicans are listed as co-sponsors, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is in line to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the 114th Congress convenes in January.
Several provisions within the bill are aimed at combating what Gillibrand characterized as “the scourge” of sexual assault by stepping up enforcement, providing better services to victims, improving information and transparency and increasing penalties for non-compliance.
The legislation would expand the reporting requirements for sex offenses, requiring institutions to report the number of cases that were investigated, referred for a disciplinary proceeding or sent to local or state law enforcement. Schools would further be required to divulge the number of individuals held responsible for their conduct and provide the sanction imposed. Failure to provide the information carries a $150,000 fine per violation – up from the current $35,000.
The Gillibrand-McCaskill bill also requires colleges to enter into a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement agencies to “clearly delineate responsibilities and share information” in reference to sexual assault cases on campus. Institutions that fail to enter into such an agreement could face a fine of up to one percent of their operating budget – a penalty that can be waived if the school can show why it was unable to reach some accord with the local agency.
Gillibrand told the subcommittee that police should be the first responders when a crime as serious as sexual assault occurs “but the vast majority of police departments have responded to reports with victim blaming and belittlement, and as a result, survivors have lost trust in law enforcement.”
“Even in cases where survivors have felt supported by their interactions with police, they have been devastated by slipshod investigations, drawn-out court proceedings and the refusal of prosecutors to take their cases,” she said. “Four out of every five rapes that are reported to the police are never prosecuted. That is simply unacceptable.”
The legislation, Gillibrand said, would “finally hold colleges and universities accountable for facing this problem head-on, aggressively, with the goal of making safety on our campuses a reality for America’s students, and not an empty promise.”
Gillibrand told the panel that far too many survivors of campus sexual assault “have felt re-victimized by the process of trying to seek justice for the crime committed against them. This inescapable fact must be fixed.”
The hearing was held amid a raging national controversy over an article that recently appeared in Rolling Stone magazine said to detail a gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and the poor and inadequate response of school officials when the incident was reported. It also shared details about the problem of campus sexual assault across the country.
Since the story’s publication, however, questions have been raised about the accuracy of the depicted assault – the magazine failed to interview the alleged perpetrators and some discrepancies in the account have been brought to light. Rolling Stone has acknowledged that mistakes were made and is in the process of re-reporting the story.
Gillibrand said the Rolling Stone controversy doesn’t mean campus sexual assault isn’t a problem.
“Clearly, we don’t know the facts of what did or did not happen in this case,” she told the panel. “But these facts have not changed — UVA has admitted they have allowed students who have confessed to sexually assaulting another student to remain on campus. That is and remains shocking.”
The issue has never been about just the University of Virginia, she said.
“It is painfully clear that colleges across the country have a real problem with how they are handling, or not handling cases of sexual assault on their campuses,” she said. “And I refuse to let this story become an excuse for Congress to do nothing and accept a broken system.”
But McCaskill, testifying at the same hearing, acknowledged that the controversy represents a setback for the effort to address the problem.
“This is not a crime where you have random false reporting or embellishment,” McCaskill said. “This is a crime that is the most under-reported crime in America and will remain so. Our problem is not victims coming forward and embellishing, our problem is victims are too frightened to come forward.”
She said the Rolling Stone report was a “bad piece of journalism” that “has set us back, and I want to make sure we overcome it and don’t allow it to slow us in our determination to make sure that victims have the support they need.”
Angela Fleischer, assistant director of student support and intervention for confidential advising at Southern Oregon University, testified that campus sexual assault is “a vastly under-reported crime.”
“The barriers that keep survivors from coming forward are many but are often surmountable if we are able to focus our efforts on offering choice and providing trauma-informed care,” Fleischer said. “And when we increase at least initial reporting the resulting benefits to individual victims and to our community are profound.”
By utilizing specially-trained individuals who respond to reports of sexual assault at Southern Oregon University, Fleischer said, “survivors are given access to accurate, complete information and options and communities become safer as we learn to identify the offenders within, most of whom will continue to commit sexual offenses if left unidentified.”
The need for such programs, she said, is “urgent and undeniable” since incidents occur “thousands of times each year on campuses across the country.”