Senators announce bipartisan bill to curb campus sexual assault

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 30: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) (R) and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) are joined by survivors of campus sexual assult during a news conference about new legislation aimed at curbing sexual assults on college and university campuses at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. With strong bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys about campus assaults and impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law's requirements. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON -- Colleges and universities could be more accountable to rape victims under legislation introduced Wednesday by a bipartisan group of senators.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., led the effort, with lawmakers from both parties saying they have heard too many stories of campus assault and bungled cases. More than a half dozen senators stood with campus sexual assault victims on Capitol Hill as they announced the legislation.

At least two senators - Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Mark Warner, D-Va. - said that as fathers of college-age daughters, they want campuses to track the problem more effectively.

"There is no reason or excuse to demean, dismiss or deny the problem, and accountability has come," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Added Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa: "Sometimes a victim is treated worse than the person who committed the crime."

The action on Capitol Hill further escalates the dialogue in Washington on an issue long handled locally. Earlier this year, a White House task force on campus sexual assault recommended a series of actions schools should take, and the Education Department took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of schools facing federal investigation under Title IX for the way they handle sexual abuse allegations.

This bill would require campuses to designate advocates who would confidentially discuss available options with victims and to develop an agreement with local law enforcement over how such cases are handled. It would also increase penalties for universities that did not comply.

To encourage victims to come forward, the bill stipulates that schools will no longer be allowed to sanction a student who reveals a violation, such as underage drinking, in "good faith." It also would require schools to survey their students to learn more about the scope of the problem and to use one uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, not singling out groups such as athletic departments to independently handle such cases.

"We're not going to legislate away sexual assault, but we can make it better for the survivors coming forward, and this bill is an incredible first step," said Annie Clark, from the advocacy group End Rape on Campus.

Earlier this month, a report commissioned by McCaskill's office found that around 40 percent of colleges and universities reported not having conducted a sexual assault investigation in the past five years, despite estimates that 1 in 5 college-aged women is sexually assaulted. Over 70 percent of the 200 schools who participated in the report did not have a protocol in place for working with local law enforcement, and half did not provide a hotline for assault victims.

"Many institutions continually violate the law and fail to follow best practices in how they handle sexual violence," McCaskill stated when she released the report.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said the bill has some good ideas, such as defining a confidential victim's advocate. But he said it takes a pretty heavy-handed approach and potentially adds more intervention to already confusing and overlapping federal laws that govern the way colleges and universities should handle such cases.

"We desperately want to do the right thing, but we need to know what that is, and we need enough flexibility to meet the needs of each individual, unique case," Hartle said.

The joint work on the bill by McCaskill and Gillibrand represents a departure from a legislative battle earlier this year when the two senators took differing views on how best to deal with military sexual assault. They were also joined at Wednesday's event by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio said he doesn't believe the bill would completely solve the problem, but it would advance the issue.

In a gridlocked Congress with limited working days left on the calendar, the bill faces a daunting path to be passed.