Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Address Campus Sexual Assault

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would designate confidential advisors to counsel sexual assault survivors on their options, stiffen penalties for universities that don't do enough to address sexual assault, and require colleges to survey their students about their experiences.

Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks alongside survivor advocates and fellow Senate co-sponsors of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Emily Crockett // RH Reality Check

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

A bipartisan group of eight senators introduced legislation on Wednesday that aims to improve how college campuses respond to sexual assault. 

Standing alongside sexual assault survivors and advocates, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Mark Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Dean Heller (R-NV) told reporters that the bill is necessary because one in five college women experience sexual assault, and young women are more likely to be sexually assaulted if they are in college than if they are not. 

Too many of those sexual assault survivors are re-traumatized, senators and survivors said, because colleges fail to take their claims seriously or do enough to address them.

Andrea Pino, a campus sexual assault survivor and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, said that she woke up one morning her sophomore year at the University of North Carolina covered in blood and bruises from a sexual assault. “Far away from home, I was alone in my recovery, told by administrators that I could just not handle college, isolated by the entire community thereafter,” she said. 

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act would designate confidential advisors to counsel sexual assault survivors on their options. This, Pino said, would give future students somebody who will believe them, and would help prevent what happened to her from happening to someone else. 

The act would also require colleges and universities to survey students about their experiences with sexual assault, give specialized training to campus personnel, set up a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, and significantly stiffen penalties for underreporting crimes or failing to comply with federal standards. 

“This approach is survivor-centered, it’s comprehensive, and it’s truly a breakthrough,” Blumenthal said. 

Nearly every speaker at the Wednesday morning press conference used the word “bipartisan” at least once. The eight original co-sponsors plan to require a “two by two” approach for any of their colleagues who also want to sign on as co-sponsors—a Democrat would have to bring on a Republican, and vice versa.

Republican and Democratic co-sponsors had similar things to say about how appalling the current trend is, and how colleges need to do better. Heller and Warner both invoked their college-aged daughters as reasons they support the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Rubio said the new bill would create a uniform system in which every victim is treated the same and there is “no special preference because somebody can dunk a basketball or throw a ball 80 yards down the field.”

Under the new bill, if a school fails to adequately report campus crime statistics under the Clery Act, it would face a fine of up to $150,000 per violation, a significant increase from the current limit of $35,000. And if a school fails to live up to the requirements set out in the new bill, that school could face fines of up to 1 percent of its operating budget.

To put that in perspective, Gillibrand said, a school like Harvard with a $4.2 billion budget could face fines of up to $42 million for failing to live up to its obligations to sexual assault survivors. That gives the bill “real teeth,” Gillibrand said, and represents “a significant shift in the incentives to do this right.”

McCaskill said that under the status quo, the only leverage the Department of Education has is a threat to cut off all of the school’s federal funding. “That’s a little bit like me telling my kids I’ll never speak to them again,” McCaskill said. “That is not a realistic punishment.”

A survey conducted by McCaskill’s staff found that 20 percent of schools allowed their athletic departments oversight over sexual assault investigations, which senators called an unacceptable conflict of interest. The survey also found that 40 percent of schools had not conducted a single sexual violence investigation in the past five years, and that 20 percent of the nation’s largest private institutions conducted fewer investigations than the number of incidents they reported to the Department of Education. 

“Climate surveys” mandated by the bill would ask students confidentially about their experiences with sexual assault, and their opinions of how well the school handles incidents. The surveys are necessary, McCaskill said, to gauge the progress schools are making, and because “in this crime, there will never be a day that we don’t have underreporting.” Only about 5 percent of victims ever report the crime to authorities, and climate surveys can help determine whether a low rate of reporting is due to few incidents, or students feeling unsafe coming forward. 

McCaskill was unimpressed by complaints from higher education lobbying groups like the American Council on Education, which has pushed back against mandating these surveys due to staffing or cost issues.

“These universities are filled with researchers that do surveys all the time,” McCaskill said. “It seems to be a lame excuse.”

Gillibrand added that most of the work will be done by the Department of Education, which will give schools the survey and take the results. All the schools have to do is make the survey available online and ensure that students take it. 

“It’s really not a cost-heavy requirement. It’s pretty simple,” Gillibrand said. 

Gillibrand and McCaskill, who butted heads earlier this year over how to handle military sexual assaults, presented a united front on the campus sexual assault issue and said there was no story in their working together on this bill. 

Like this bill, Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) had bipartisan support. But unlike the MJIA, which was opposed by the Pentagon, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act probably won’t face opposition that is quite so daunting or quite so influential in Congress. 

Gillibrand said she was “very optimistic” that the bipartisan nature of the bill will help it pass through Congress before the end of the session, and bill sponsors hope to get floor time for the bill in September. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) will spearhead similar legislation in the House.