• August 30, 2014

Senator McCaskill Plans Legislation to Improve Response to Campus Sexual Violence

Sen. Claire McCaskill used a roundtable discussion of sexual violence on campuses Monday to announce that she planned to propose legislation to improve colleges’ response to the issue, which has drawn attention in recent months from the White House, the Education and Justice Departments, and student victims and their advocates across the country.

The roundtable, the second of three held by Ms. McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, was attended by advocates for survivors, college administrators, two other U.S. senators, and the official in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The focus was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex in education programs that receive federal aid. Ms. McCaskill’s legislative proposal, she said, would be informed by information gleaned from the three roundtables.

"I need to be able to show our colleagues this is the body of work that needs to be done, and this is what is getting done," she said, citing the demand for grants in a Justice Department program as evidence that the work was unfinished.

The Justice Department official, Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, reported that the department program on Grants to Reduce Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, and Stalking on Campus made 28 awards out of 127 applications in the 2013 fiscal year.

Two key debates that arose during the roundtable were what aspects of Title IX enforcement should be centralized in the federal government, and whether the penalty for Title IX violations should be changed.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, asked, "Shouldn’t there be some sort of set of standards … for what kinds of services should be offered, what advice should be given?"

Ms. Samuels said that, while models can be good, colleges should create sexual-assault policies that are customized to their communities. "We don’t want universities to cut and paste from some boilerplate," she said.

Newsweek recently reported that the University of Akron, one of the 60 colleges and universities under investigation by the Education Department for possible Title IX violations involving sexual violence, copied Miami University of Ohio’s sexual-misconduct policies. Ms. Samuels pointed to the Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies found on NotAlone.gov, a resource for sexual-assault victims created recently by the White House, as a place where colleges could find the basics for their own policies.

Penalties and Training

The roundtable also included discussion of how aspects of Title IX administration may need centralizing. Cat Riley, Title IX coordinator at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, called for the creation of a website for all Title IX coordinators at colleges similar to what student-aid officials can find at the website of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Such a resource could also offer training for all Title IX coordinators.

Senator McCaskill also suggested that the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, look into the differing policies of the Education Department’s 12 regional Offices for Civil Rights after Lindy Aldrich, deputy director at the Victim Rights Law Center, pointed out that lawyers often come to her asking for advice on how to deal with the different offices.

Another topic of discussion concerned the penalty for colleges found to violate Title IX. The sole penalty is that a college loses all of its federal funding. While colleges have paid large damages and legal fees in Title IX court cases, no college has lost its federal funding due to a Title IX violation.

Ms. McCaskill noted that while the Departments of Justice and Education "carry a big stick" with that penalty, if a college were to be found in violation, it would punish "way too many innocent young people."

The idea of a system of fines was brought up as a potential remedy for the current Title IX penalty system. But Ms. Aldrich noted that, if not designed properly, a fine-based penalty structure could severely hurt impoverished colleges, while being akin to "swatting flies" at affluent institutions. John Kelly, special-projects organizer for the survivor-advocacy group Know Your IX, suggested fining colleges based on their endowment size.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, observed that bad publicity alone may inspire colleges to act. "There are worse things than monetary punishment," he said.

The final roundtable, on June 16, will focus on the administrative process and the criminal-justice system as they relate to the punishment of perpetrators of campus sexual assaults.

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