Share this article

print logo

Legislation to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses deserves wide support

Congress should act quickly to pass the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, overdue legislation to deal with sexual violence on college campuses.

The bill, already introduced in the Senate, would impose large monetary penalties on colleges and universities that fail to implement new services, training standards and other requirements aimed at preventing sexual assaults.

Is it perfect? Of course not. But the need is urgent, and the bill is a starting point and could be strengthened as it winds its way through Congress.

Led by Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and with support from key Republicans, the bill would make colleges more accountable when sexual assaults occur. This is a nonpartisan issue that touches every parent who has a child in a college or university and escalates the response to campus sexual abuse.

A few months ago, President Obama announced a new federal task force to address sexual assault on college campuses. The Education Department revealed the names of 55 colleges and universities – big and small, public and private – being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse cases.

The proposed legislation would force colleges and universities to designate “confidential advisers” who would work with student victims of sexual assault in reporting the crime to campus authorities and local law enforcement. It also includes minimum training standards for campus personnel, new transparency requirements and a requirement for all colleges and universities to enter into memoranda of understanding with applicable local law enforcement on the sharing of information.

There is the provision calling for a public database of campus assaults. The information will be provided by students, not administrators, through a survey.

Also notable are penalties of up to 1 percent of an institution’s operating budget for non-compliance and an increase in penalties for violations of the Clery Act, which established crime reporting criteria for higher education institutions. Those penalties would increase to $150,000 per violation from the current $35,000.

While expensive, the penalties are not enough to cripple a college and hurt the education of its students, but will force colleges to pay proper attention to the issue of sexual assaults. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case, and recent stories have chronicled how some schools have bungled investigations of sexual abuse.

According to Gillibrand’s office, the lack of staffing means that 63 percent of colleges that violate federal requirements go unpunished. It’s unfortunate that her legislation sets new standards, but makes no provision for the monitoring of whether colleges are complying.

Perhaps the transparency requirement, allowing the public a clear view into how these cases are being handled, will help push much-needed changes on campuses and keep students safe.

Congress is on its summer vacation and will have little time to act before the November elections, but this is an important issue that deserves immediate attention.