Supporting the Sex Assault Bill

August 15, 2014

WASHINGTON -- In announcing bipartisan campus sexual assault legislation earlier this month, Senator Claire McCaskill suggested that colleges could either protest the scrutiny or get on board with the effort.

“There’s two ways to handle it: you can circle the wagons, deny it, and fight it,” she said at a press conference. “Or you can join forces, and say, ‘Thank you for the heads-up; we need help in this area.’ ”

Several higher education groups in Washington have responded by pushing back against the legislation. While acknowledging that colleges have a moral and legal obligation to root out sexual violence on their campus, some higher education advocates in Washington said that the bill is mostly too heavy-handed. The American Council on Education, for example, said it liked some elements of the bill but said that much of it would add too much complexity to the already-confusing array of federal requirements that colleges must follow when it comes to handling sexual assault cases.

Some individual colleges and university systems, though, are opting for a different approach: they're either embracing the legislation outright or cautiously deferring judgment on it, careful not to be dismissive of the concerns about sexual assault animating the legislative effort.

A handful of institutions have come out squarely in favor of the legislation. But even those that haven't gone as far as endorsing the plan say they still embrace the lawmakers’ effort and want to hammer out the details through the legislative process.

Having unveiled the bill earlier this month, several of its supporters in Congress have gone back to their districts -- and the colleges within them -- to promote the the bill.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the bill’s Democratic sponsors, held a press conference in Connecticut alongside a handful officials representing colleges in that state that support the legislation. Fairfield University was one of those institutions. Tom Pellegrino, the university’s vice president for student affairs, said that while the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is not new, it has “now reached the level of legislative prescription.”

“As stringent as the new legislation purports to be, it’s necessary at this point,” he said.

“We haven’t gotten there yet by ourselves,” he said. “We have to be reactive to this need.”

“In terms of executing the new requirements, I have concerns about whether we currently have the resources in place,” he said. But those concerns don’t override the positive goal of the bill, which is to have assault-free campuses, he said.

At least one higher education group in Washington, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said it welcomed the new legislation.

“We believe that the bipartisan bill released today by Senator McCaskill will help us to work collaboratively to prevent and to respond to sexual assault,” Muriel A. Howard, the group’s president, said in a statement earlier this month.

In a memo to its member institutions this week, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities urged its members to discuss the legislation with their lawmakers before the end of the Congressional recess. 

The APLU memo says that public universities "fully embrace" the legislation "in concept," and cites several positive provisions. But it also suggests some talking points for concerns about the legislation, including the requirement that universities enter into agreements with local law enforcement agencies for handling sexual assault cases. The APLU also says it is concerned that "the revenue from penalties would all go to the department, which creates undue incentive and may invite a bounty mindset."

Still, public institutions appeared to be generally more supportive of the bill. 

In McCaskill’s home state of Missouri, University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe said in a statement that he “welcome[d] the focus of Senator McCaskill and her Senate colleagues on the problem of campus sexual assault.”

The State University of New York System has come out in favor of the proposal.  

“Overall we very much support this proposed legislation,” said Joe Storch, associate counsel at the SUNY system in Albany. He praised the requirement that colleges provide amnesty from underage drinking violations for students reporting a sexual assault.

In addition, Storch said that the campus climate survey proposal -- an idea that the American Council on Education has specifically questioned -- was a good idea.

“Having this come out from the Department of Education and be administered in a consistent way is a major efficiency,” he said. “It would also help those smaller institutions that don’t have research institutions.”

Andrea Stagg, an associate counsel at SUNY said that the system’s campuses would likely already be in compliance with many of the new provisions, such as the requirement to have agreements with local law enforcement agencies on how to handle sexual assault cases.

Stagg said that the bill was reaffirming to many of the policies already in place at SUNY campuses. “When I read the bill, I didn’t get an accusatory tone,” she said. “This is codifying some best practices. There are definitely details to be worked out, but we look forward to trying to assist.”

Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa, praised the legislation for “focusing attention on this issue.”

She pointed to bolstered resources for victims and increased grants to support training of campus personnel as among the “good ideas” in the bill.

“We need to be partners in this,” she said of federal lawmakers. “If I had the solutions to this, I would be the first to stand up and fix this problem. We’re all looking for guidance and good solutions.”

Other parts of the legislation, though, are aimed at holding colleges more accountable, such as toughening the penalties on institutions that mishandle sexual assault cases.

“I’m much more of a fan of carrots than sticks,” Mason said. “I’d prefer to see some incentives for colleges to make good progress going forward.”

The legislation would also require colleges to survey students anonymously each year about their views on campus sexual assault, and publish the results online.

“I’m open to suggestions, some of which are found in this bill, and happy to try things that may have good long-term effects,” Mason said.

Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system, said that while she hasn’t yet taken a position on the legislation, she supports its goals.

“We’re still going through it,” she said in an interview last week.

Napolitano earlier this year appointed a systemwide task force to address campus sexual assaults, following two federal Title IX complaints filed by 31 current and former UC Berkeley students. She also changed system policies to require expanded reporting of campus violence and increased support services for victims.

Napolitano has backed separate legislation by Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, that would require colleges to provide an independent advocate to help victims of sexual assault get the resources they need and help them through any campus proceedings.

“I support the principles of the McCaskill bill, but we are not waiting for federal legislation."

She said that it’s especially important to bolster relationships between campuses and local law enforcement agencies.

"That's one of the areas that have somehow slipped through the cracks in the national debate," she said. "A  rape is a rape and universities and colleges are not in the best position to prosecute crimes, so you need to have a way for the campus to have a connection with local district attorneys."

Without taking a stance on the legislation, Napolitano did allude to some concerns that have been expressed from the American Council on Education.

“It’s very difficult for a piece of legislation to appreciate all the differences between institutions of higher education -- big and small, rich and poor, residential, nonresidential,” she said adding that the “lengthy and laborious” rule making process further compounds that problem.

For instance, climate surveys, Napolitano said, are “something that deserves further discussion,” noting that such a tool has both possibilities and also limitations. “That’s the kind of thing where a cookie-cutter approach is not always the best way to look forward.”

Napolitano said that federal policy makers should focus on using their “convening authority” to facilitate the exchange of ideas on how best to combat sexual assault.

“One thing that Washington can do is to support and convene a national exchange of best practices,” she said. “There are evidence-based strategies in this area. They can support research into this area. That’s important. They can provide resources. Those are things that are well within the purview of the federal government.”

The unveiling of the campus sexual assault bill earlier this month was just the beginning of what is likely to be continued attention and scrutiny on colleges for this issue.

The list of lawmakers supporting the effort has grown since it was announced earlier this month. Four more Democrats and three Republican Senators have signed on to the measure.

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