WASHINGTON — U.S. colleges and universities that fail to take steps to curb sexual assault on their campuses would face stiff penalties under a proposal introduced in the Senate on Wednesday.
A key provision would require colleges to conduct an annual, anonymous survey in which students would be asked about their experiences with sexual assault on campus. Colleges would be required to publish the results online "so that parents and high school students can make an informed choice when comparing universities," a summary of the bill says.
The proposal would toughen sanctions against colleges that fail to report sexual assault crimes as required by federal law, raising the penalty from $35,000 per violation to $150,000 per violation. It also would fine schools up to 1% of their operating budgets if they fail to investigate reports of sexual assault on their campuses.
The idea is to "flip the incentives that currently reward (colleges for) keeping sexual assault in the shadows," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., one of the bill's eight sponsors. "We will not allow these crimes to be swept under the rug any longer."
The current penalty for failing to investigate a sexual assault complaint is the loss of access to federal student aid, but it has never been levied and is "not a realistic punishment," said co-sponsor Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "I don't think universities really feel there are consequences that are meaningful."
McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, earlier this month released a survey of a national sample of 236 colleges and universities that found that 41% had conducted no investigations of alleged sexual assaults over the past five years, even though some of the schools had reported sexual violence incidents during that time to the Department of Education.
Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities in Washington, called the legislation "a pretty heavy-handed approach."
"Sexual assault cases on college campuses are often incredibly difficult to resolve," he said. "I think some of the sponsors believe universities do not want to do the right thing."
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that approximately 19% of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault. Because many such c rimes are not reported, that number could be substantially higher, the senators said.
Several survivors of sexual assaults and advocates joined the senators at a briefing, including Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, co-founders of End Rape on Campus. "The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself," Clark said.
Among provisions of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, colleges and universities would be required to:
• Designate confidential advisers who coordinate services for the survivor.
• Train campus personnel involved in sexual assault-related services so they have a "firm understanding of the nature of these crimes and their effect on survivors."
• No longer allow athletics departments or similar subgroups of students to handle complaints of sexual violence for members of that group.
• Coordinate efforts with local law enforcement agencies.
Prospects for passage this year are doubtful. Congress is leaving town for the summer at the end of the week and this bill is not yet on the agenda for September, when there are only a few weeks of legislative activity planned.
Others sponsors include Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Dean Heller, R-Nev.; and Mark Warner, D-Va.
"As the father of two women, one of whom started college in the fall, this is an issue that is important to me as a father as well as a senator," Heller said. "Our children should be focused on learning in a safe and productive environment, not about what dangers exist on their own campus."
Natasha McKenzie, vice president of the College Democrats of America, took a jab at Rubio. "While it's great news that Sen. Rubio has joined the many bipartisan voices working to end campus sexual assault, it's impossible to forget that he voted twice against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. At a time when nearly one in five women in the U.S. have been raped on and off campus ... Rubio's continued opposition to this important (and bipartisan) legislation shows how out of touch he is with the needs of young Americans."