Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Senators Propose New Law Aimed at Campus Sexual Assault

Today a group of bi-partisan 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.  Included in its provisions are:
  •  a required annual survey of students at every university in America to help understand the climate of sexual violence on campuses
  • requirements that all campus personnel who deal with sexual violence in some way receive specialized training
  • a requirement that colleges and universities provide confidential advisors to serve as a resource to victims of sexual violence by helping to coordinate their support services, educational accommodations, and dealing with campus authorities and law enforcement
  • a prohibition on colleges sanctioning a student who reports sexual violence in good faith (such as punishing the victim for underage drinking) 
  • requirement that the Department of Education publish the names of all schools with pending investigations, final resolutions, and voluntary resolution agreements related to Title IX
  • a requirement that colleges and universities use a uniform process of campus disciplinary proceedings that doesn't allow, say, athletic departments to handle sexual violence in a different way than the rest of campus
  • a requirement that colleges and universities coordinate with local law enforcement to delineate respective responsibilities and areas of jurisdiction
Some of these provisions would codify (and thus make mandatory) recommendations contained in the White House Task Force report that came out last May, while others echo requirements in the Office for Civil Rights 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (which, unlike the requirements contained in a statute, could be easily revoked by a future Secretary of Education serving under a different presidential administration).  But one additional provision of CASA is (as I told the New York Times) a potential "game changer" and that is the addition of financial penalties other than federal funding withdrawal as a tool the Department of Education can use to deal with schools that violate provisions of Title IX. This is considerably important.  Because it the severity of revoking federal funds (leaving an institution's students without financial aid, most notably) the Department of Education has never and probably will never revoke federal funding over Title IX compliance.  And schools know this, so the law provides little incentive for them to proactively comply.  Under this new law, however, schools would have more to fear than just a scolding and a compelled promise to prospectively comply.  They could potentially be fined for an amount equal to 1% of their total operating budget. I would expect the threat of such a penalty to more effectively motivate compliance than Title IX's current enforcement mechanism.

The bills co-sponsors are Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).  The fact of bipartisan support certainly increases the bill's odds of passing into law, though it is also worth noting that other Title IX type laws proposed in Congress have not necessarily passed just because of bipartisan support.  (I'm thinking of the High School Athletics Accountability Act, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, and the Student Nondiscrimination Act).  We will have to wait and see if CASA gets taken more seriously because of the high profile nature of the problem of campus sexual assault.