NAICU Washington Update

Senators and Experts Testify During Hearing on Campus Sexual Assault

August 06, 2015

In its sixth hearing on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee focused on legislation to combat campus sexual assault.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) chaired the hearing until Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) could join near the end of the proceedings. In her opening remarks to the July 29 hearing, Sen. Collins noted that she had met with her summer interns and found that their priorities on campus safety were mandatory ongoing education and prevention training for all students and campus staff, the availability of truly confidential advisors, and a campus disciplinary process that is fair for both students involved. She asked that respondents think about the existing campus safety law and let the committee know what works, what needs to be changed, and what needs to be done in legislation.

The committee heard from two panels. Video of the hearing and written testimony of all witnesses is available here.

Panel 1: Senate Sponsors of Campus Accountability and Safety Act

The first panel included four of the 33 bipartisan Senate sponsors (12 Republicans, 21 Democrats) of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA), each addressing a specific part of the legislation.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) noted that CASA has been crafted with input from over 60 organizations, students, colleges, parents, researchers, and many more. Her testimony focused on the need for new campus resources to ensure victims/survivors have the information and support they need, which include confidential advisors, cited as the single most critical component.
  • Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) highlighted the need for standardized campus climate surveys that the Department of Education would develop and pay for.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) conveyed more concern with institutions’ handling of sexual assault cases, noting that nationally only one-third of students found guilty of sexual assault are expelled from their institution, while all students who have been found guilty of academic cheating were expelled. She also noted the need for a strong memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the institution and local law enforcement, and a “dignified path to justice” for the victim.
  • Sen. Kelly Ayote (R-NH) acknowledged that most schools are addressing the issue of campus sexual assault, and expects the bill to highlight best practices on campus, and help identify strategies to solve the worst problems.

Panel 2: Campus Safety Experts

The second panel included four experts who are working on campus safety and sexual assault issues around the country.

  • University of California President Janet Napolitano framed the issue as not just something that happens on college campuses, but that is a criminal, public health, and cultural issue in our country. She reported that UC has a task force on prevention, response, and reporting and that the institution uses the affirmative consent standard on campus. Napolitano also noted that every UC campus has a confidential advisor, and all 400,000 people associated with the university will be trained on prevention and awareness best practices. Regarding the CASA legislation, she highlighted several issues that must be taken into account, including: ensuring that the language is flexible enough to allow for institutional differences; coordinating existing rules and regulations through the Department of Education; making sure new laws do not undo what colleges are now implementing; and recommending that MOUs be considered differently when institutions have a sworn police department.
  • Dana Bolger, a 2014 graduate of Amherst College, and founder of Know Your IX, argued that Title IX is a powerful tool that forces institutions to tackle and address issues of sexual assault. According to Bolger, Title IX has resulted in increased campus transparency through enhanced reporting and climate surveys; strengthened enforcement from the Office of Civil Rights, with fines instead of being threatened with the loss of Title IV funds; and would improve more with increased appropriations and more staff.
  • Dolores Stafford, Chief of Police at The George Washington University, made the case that institutions do a lot to make students safe, and work hard to implement the regulations in the 300+ page Clery campus safety manual. She noted that prevention and education awareness programs help deter campus sexual assault the best, especially if they are first targeted at middle school boys.
  • Mollie Benz Flounlacker, project manager for the Association of American Universities climate survey project, shared that presidents know the issue is important and take education, prevention, and response very seriously while holding high the “fair and prompt” standard when dealing with individual cases that are often quite complex. She also conveyed to the committee that the current landscape of law and regulation is very muddled and complex, noting that institutions need standards that are concise and as flexible as appropriate. Benz Flounlacker also noted that AAU will be releasing its research-based climate survey this fall.

In addition to the topics covered by the panelists, Senators raised several other issues during the hearing, including:

  • What are response rates for campus climate surveys?
  • Why don’t survivors want mandatory referral (to law enforcement) laws?
  • What are the conflicts/confusions between Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act?
  • What is the best way to ensure that institutions are provided standards and regulations that are comprehensive, yet flexible enough to take into account the diverse campus environments and resources at colleges and universities around the country?
  • What can the federal government do to ensure colleges establish procedures that protect the due process rights of the accused and the accuser?

MORE News from NAICU