Congress Searching For Answers To Sexual Assault Crisis On College Campuses

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

The lawmakers who spent the past year pushing for military sexual assault reform are now setting their sights on college campuses. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), who introduced competing measures to change the way the military handles rape cases, are now working together to address the sexual assault crisis at colleges and universities.

The issue of sexual assault at higher education institutions has received increasing attention as students at dozens of schools have filed federal complaints against their universities, accusing them of failing to protect victims. At the beginning of this year, President Obama announced the creation of a new White House task force to find policy solutions in this area. California lawmakers have introduced legislation at the state level. Now, U.S. lawmakers are laying the groundwork for national reform.

This week, McCaskill sent out an “unprecedented” survey to hundreds of college administrators across the country, hoping to collect data about the current systems in place for dealing with sexual assault. The move comes just a week after she met with the Education Department and Justice Department to find out how they enforce federal laws regarding rape cases on campuses.

McCaskill wants to collect the survey results by the beginning of May. She told the Washington Post that she expects to find “a patchwork of processes and systems,” evidence of “dysfunction” between campus and city police departments, and a general “reluctance to empower victims.” She’s not sure what federal legislation may be necessary in addition to the existing Title IX and Clery Act requirements, but she plans on holding round table discussions in order to explore the potential.

Gillbrand has also recently indicated that she’s considering introducing legislation regarding campus sexual assault. And earlier this month, Gillibrand and McCaskill joined forces to push for increased funding to combat sexual assault at colleges across the country. They sent a letter to the leadership of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee calling for more staffing to enforce federal gender equity laws, and linking the issue to the problems in the military.

“I fear that, like the U.S. military, we’re going to find systemic problems on our college campuses — including very low reporting due to lack of protections and resources. Our schools must provide the highest level of responsiveness to ensure that victims are protected and empowered, and that perpetrators don’t get a free pass,” McCaskill noted.

Both McCaskill’s and Gillibrand’s staff told the Huffington Post that tackling the issue of rape on college campuses was a natural next step after working on the same issues in the military. “Through the course of that work, in the last couple months, we started hearing from students and advocates about the issue of sexual assault in college campuses. You start to hear some things that are eerily similar,” Gillibrand’s communications director, Glen Caplin, said. “They’re very different in terms of solutions, but you start to hear things that are systemic in nature.”

This issue is also gaining traction in the House of Representatives, led by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). Those two lawmakers have pressured the U.S. government to crack down on the colleges that are failing to adequately handle sexual assault cases, and are also urging U.S. News & World Report to update its influential college rankings to include information about rape on campus.

The vast majority of women who are victims of rape are assaulted before they reach their mid-twenties. Undergraduate women are most at risk during the first six weeks of their first year of college. By the time women graduate from college, one in five will be a survivor of sexual assault. But colleges’ lenient policies often allow rapists to escape punishment and go on to victimize more people.