The (Eugene) Register-Guard
It’s a familiar story on university campuses in Oregon and throughout the nation: A student reports that she or he has been sexually assaulted by another student, and school officials fail to respond with a timely, professional investigation that protects the rights of the accuser — and sometimes the rights of the accused as well.
If, as has been happening with increasing frequency, a victim speaks out or files a Title IX complaint, school administrators predictably defend their institution’s inadequate performance, while vowing to combat sexual violence on campus.
Then comes another sexual assault, and the cycle repeats itself with another botched investigation and more professions of “zero tolerance.”
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Wednesday introduced legislation intended to stop this cycle and to curb the appallingly high number of sexual assaults on the nation’s college campuses.
The Campus Safety and Accountability Act would require a uniform process for disciplinary proceedings, eliminating the practice at some schools of having athletic departments independently handle assault cases involving student athletes.
The legislation would require colleges to work closely with law enforcement agencies throughout investigations. Schools that fail to comply with this and other requirements in the bill could face penalties affecting 1 percent of their operating budgets and a $150,000 fine per violation.
The bill would require schools to conduct anonymous surveys of their students to learn more about the problem of assaults on campuses and to make public the results of those surveys — a move that should provide critically important information to parents and current and prospective students. Schools would be required to designate advocates who would make sure that victims are aware of all available options and to coordinate with local law enforcement on how such cases are handled. And schools would no longer be allowed to sanction students who reveal campus violations in “good faith.”
The problem of sexual violence on campus is real and pervasive. An Obama administration task force recently reported that one in five female college students in the United States has been assaulted, and several weeks ago a Senate subcommittee survey revealed that 41 percent of 236 U.S. colleges surveyed had conducted no investigations of alleged assaults in the last five years.
It’s heartening that the White House and Congress have finally realized that they need to pay more attention to the problem of campus sexual assault. Earlier this year, a dozen House members sent a letter asking U.S. News & World Report to include sexual-violence statistics in its popular annual rankings of the nation’s colleges.
The Senate should approve the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, and the House should approve a similar bill sponsored by Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa. While Congress has a full schedule in the dwindling number of working days left in the current session, lawmakers should give this legislation the high-level priority it deserves.