Colleges would be required to provide confidential advisers for sexual-assault victims and face new penalties for failing to comply with existing laws under a bill introduced today by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators.
The proposal, designed to encourage victims to use support services without compelling them to report their cases to schools or law enforcement, was unveiled at a news conference with senators including Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada and Marco Rubio of Florida.
The bill follows a series of roundtable discussions McCaskill held in Washington with sexual-assault victims and advocates along with college, police and government officials. A survey of 440 colleges she released July 9 showed that many ignore provisions of Title IX, which requires them to prevent and investigate sexual assaults, and the Clery Act, which orders colleges to report violent incidents to the government.
“To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered, and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable,” McCaskill said in a statement. “That’s what our legislation aims to accomplish.”
McCaskill, a former prosecutor, has said she wants to see more campus sexual assaults investigated and taken to court. The legislation would require colleges to coordinate with local law enforcement groups to specify responsibilities and share information, according to the statement.
At some universities, victims’ advisers must report cases they learn of, which may discourage students from seeking help. A few schools have found that having a confidential adviser, who explains the reporting process while making sure that services are available, has in fact helped increase the number of victims who do go to the police, said Annie Clark, a co-founder of End Rape on Campus, an advocacy group.
“The first point of contact is crucial,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “It could dissuade the person from ever reporting.”
Students from across the country have filed complaints with the Education Department, alleging that their schools have failed to comply with Title IX and the Clery Act. Senators including Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a co-sponsor of the bill, along with victims’ advocacy groups have said that fines for breaking the laws are either too small or too severe to be effective.
The bill would let the Education Department enforce a penalty of as much as 1 percent of a school’s operating budget for failure to comply with Title IX. The current penalty is the loss of eligibility for all U.S. government student aid, which critics have said is impractical. The bill would also raise penalties for Clery Act violations to a maximum of $150,000 per violation. The current limit is $35,000.
Such rules would put greater financial and administrative burdens on colleges while they’re struggling to cope with many other issues that are central to their academic mission, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based group.
“This is well-intentioned, but it’s seriously misguided,” Neal said in a telephone interview. “No one wants to sweep sexual assaults under the rug, and a far better way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to look to the criminal justice system.”
The legislation was designed to better enforce existing rules and simplify compliance for colleges, End Rape’s Clark said.
“These are things that should already be happening,” she said.
Other senators supporting the bill are Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia.