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'Campus Accountability and Safety Act’ Addresses Sexual Assault

By Peg Pennepacker, CAA on November 13, 2014 hst Print

On July 30, 2014, a group of bipartisan senators proposed new legislation in Congress called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, aimed at addressing the problem of sexual assault on college and university campuses. If passed, this legislation would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assault on college campuses and impose significant financial penalties on schools that fail to comply with the law’s requirements.

Earlier in the year, a White House task force was organized in order to address the issue of sexual assault in colleges. The group found that one in five female college students in the country has been assaulted. As a result of the task force findings, the Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges and universities that are under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. It was the first time a comprehensive list of colleges being investigated for potential violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 had been made public, which clearly pressured Congress to act.

The bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act would create incentives for schools to take proactive steps to protect their students and rid their campuses of sexual predators. This new legislation would:

• Establish new campus resources and support services for student survivors. Colleges and universities would be required to designate Confidential Advisors who would serve as a resource for survivors of crimes committed against a student. This advisor would coordinate support services and accommodations for survivors, provide information relative to reporting, and provide guidance and assistance through collaboration with the survivors, campus authorities and law enforcement.
• Ensure minimum training standards for on-campus personnel. Everyone from the Confidential Advisor, to those responsible for investigating and participating in disciplinary proceedings, would be required to receive specialized training so that they have a clear understanding of the nature of these crimes and their effect on survivors.
• Create new historic transparency requirements. A new annual survey would be completed by students at every college and university in the country. The survey would be standardized and anonymous, with the results published online so that parents and high school students could make an informed choice when comparing schools. The names of all schools under investigation for sexual assault reports would also be published by the Department of Education.
• Increase campus accountability and coordination with law enforcement. Schools would be required to use a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings and no longer could allow athletic departments or other subgroups to handle complaints of sexual violence for members of that subgroup alone.
• Establish enforceable Title IX penalties, with stiffer penalties for Clery Act violations. Schools that do not comply with the requirements might face a penalty of up to one percent of the school’s operating budget. The legislation would increase penalties for Clery Act violations up to $150,000 per violation, which is an increase from the current $35,000.

It is interesting that the proposed legislation states that “athletic departments and other subgroups” would be required to handle complaints for sexual violence as part of a uniform or consistent process for campus disciplinary proceedings. In other words, this legislation would also require colleges to treat all student sexual assault investigations equally and thereby ban the practice of letting athletic departments investigate allegations against their own players.

Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), reported that, “A study by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), found that 20 percent of colleges leave the oversight of rape investigations to the athletic department when the alleged perpetrator is an athlete. This bill will stop that practice and will level the playing field for survivors coming forward.”

Effect of Proposed Legislation on High Schools

While this legislation is directed at colleges and universities, sexual assault and sexually hostile climates are not unfortunately limited to higher education. Recently, a case in a Seattle high school where a rape occurred during an overnight field trip to a national park has gained national attention because, by many accounts, the assault was critically mishandled by the school district.

In a brief summary, a 15-year-old female student was on a school-sponsored three-day nature field trip. When the assault occurred, the female student’s parents were notified and the student was taken to a local hospital. Teachers, the school’s principal, district officials, a rape advocate, the National Park Service and the FBI, which has jurisdiction over the national park, were all alerted, and details quickly became available.

The alleged perpetrator was a classmate, who admitted that he had sex with the young girl. He acknowledged to law enforcement that the female student told him to stop several times. Medical records reported that a diagnosis of rape trauma syndrome had occurred. In addition, the student met with a rape advocate at the hospital who said that the student was presented as one who had experienced a rape.

In the months that followed, the girl’s parents continually contacted the school to determine how the alleged rape could have happened and how they could get their daughter, who was shortly afterwards diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, back on track in school. The girl’s perpetrator continued attending the high school as usual, while posting on Facebook that he had been framed. The female victim never returned to high school and her mental health continued to deteriorate.

In the Seattle case – as with many cases at the high school level – the victim’s parents had no knowledge of or background with Title IX, which prohibits educational institutions that receive federal funding, including high schools, from sex discrimination, with particular prescriptions for addressing sexual assault. Although the proposed Campus Accountability and Safety Act is directed toward colleges and universities, the stakes for sexual assault in high schools can be even higher. The victims are younger, and the impact and the years for recovery are more formative.

“If approved, this legislation would have the ‘filter-down’ effect of raising the bar for high schools in terms of reasonable care to prevent sexual harassment/hazing and the duty owed to safeguard the health and well-being of students and student-athletes,” said Lee Green, an attorney and professor at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, and the chief legal writer for High School Today.

“The law would also mandate that proactive efforts be made by educational institutions to prevent sexual assault and sex-crime-related hazing situations, such as what has been reported to have occurred at Sayreville High School in New Jersey,” Green added.

While school districts have been put on notice for issues of bullying and hazing, sexual assault is a national problem that may demand immediate attention by all administrators.