Lawmakers want to prevent campus assaults

05/19/2014 6:08 PM

05/21/2014 5:43 AM

College officials often aren’t clear about how they must report cases of campus rape and sexual violence, and victims often feel they don’t have the support they need to hold assailants accountable, Sen. Claire McCaskill said Monday following a Capitol Hill roundtable.

The discussion focused on the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to disclose campus crime statistics. Some of the participants who met with McCaskill and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said that schools report the crimes differently and many don’t provide the training needed to investigate the attacks.

“Even though some universities may be checking the box and filling in the reports and sending them in, you get the sense that on many of these campuses, it is just a rote activity, as opposed to a reflection of robust policies that are designed to really get at the essence of this problem,” McCaskill said in an interview afterward.

A former sex crimes prosecutor in Kansas City, the Missouri Democrat said the changes to the legislation that she and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are working on will include a requirement that schools annually conduct anonymous surveys to learn more about sexual assault cases on their campuses.

The surveys are needed because current law does not provide good data, McCaskill said. While some schools have complained about the costs of conducting the survey, “many universities are going to be reluctant to shirk away from the responsibility of finding out exactly what the problem is on their campuses,” she said.

The legislation also will set penalties for violations of the crime-reporting law and mishandling of cases under civil rights legislation. The penalty is loss of all federal financial aid money, but it’s so extreme that it never has been imposed.

McCaskill said lawmakers were considering fines based on a school’s size, as well as rewards for good training programs and reporting, such as special consideration on grant applications.

She said she also wanted to include a requirement that schools use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in grievance procedures that involve sexual misconduct. That standard requires that it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred, according to guidelines from the Department of Education.

During the information session, Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, spoke of a “yawning gap” in understanding around the country about the best practices for handling sexual violence cases.

“I talk to a lot of parents. They want to know how to determine a safer campus,” she said.

Lynn Mahaffie, director of policy for the Office of Postsecondary Education at the Department of Education, said 13 staff members conduct audits on universities that are cited for being out of compliance with the laws on crime statistics reporting. Mahaffie said about 300 such cases occur annually.

McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor suggested that 13 seemed too few to handle so many schools.

Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a nonprofit organization that helps people who survive sexual attacks, said investigators at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights also were overwhelmed with cases concerning sexual assaults.

“If you’re going to spend money somewhere, please spend it on enforcement,” she said.

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