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Senators propose improvements to how colleges handle sexual assault

July 30, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
One in five female students has been affected by sexual assault, according to the White House. Now a bipartisan group of senators is calling for colleges and universities to take action. Gwen Ifill joins sponsors of the bill Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., to discuss how the legislation will push institutions to be more transparent and provide more support to students.

GWEN IFILL: Now to a serious problem increasingly plaguing the nation’s college campuses: the crime of sexual assault.

The White House says one in five female students has been affected, and now a bipartisan group of senators is calling for universities to act.

WOMAN: It is time to protect those who were wronged. The time is now.

GWEN IFILL: Anna wasn’t yet ready to reveal her last name today, but she was prepared to tell her story of surviving sexual assault.

WOMAN: What happened to me and to too many other women and men is wrong. It shouldn’t matter what you drink or what you wear. That doesn’t help — that doesn’t give anyone the right to sexually assault you.

GWEN IFILL: The Hobart and William Smith student joined other sexual assault survivors and a bipartisan collection of eight U.S. senators in supporting a proposal to improve the way colleges deal with crime on campus.

Annie Clark spoke on behalf of an advocacy group called End Rape on Campus.

ANNIE CLARK, End Rape on Campus: The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when I reported that I was sexually assaulted, someone told me that rape was like a football game, and that I should look back on that game to figure out what I would do differently in that situation.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: Our students deserve better than this.

GWEN IFILL: New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand said the numbers show women in college are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than women who are not.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: With this bill, we are flipping the incentives. Currently, accurate reporting makes a school an outlier, because no school wants to be alone in admitting such a serious problem. With this bill, underreporting will have stiff fines and real teeth.

GWEN IFILL: Florida Republican Marco Rubio noted that some campus investigations have favored student athletes.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: I do think it does a tremendous job of advancing the cause forward by creating a uniform system where every single victim in every single instance is treated the same, where there is no special preference because someone can dunk a basketball or throw a ball 80 yards down the field.

GWEN IFILL: Gillibrand and co-sponsor Claire McCaskill said they hope to get the bill passed this year.

Joining me now are two of the sponsors of this new legislation, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, and Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire.

Thank you both for joining us.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, R-N.H.: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: One of the most interesting numbers which came out of the White House report and then again today was that one of five women in college campuses are subject to sexual assault or victims of sexual assault. How pervasive is that? And what do — does you legislation propose that colleges do about that?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: Well, what we’re trying to do is make very clear that there has to be a system and process in place that will allow confidential space for victims to come forward and make sure these investigations are done in a competent way.

Frankly, the more startling statistic is that 40 percent of the college campuses in the country have not investigated a single case of sexual assault in five years. And we know that this is a silent epidemic on our college campuses.

So we have got a lot of work to do. This bill covers a lot of ground, and it’s a great bipartisan effort.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Ayotte, how do you define sexual assault in these cases? There are some people who would say that lots of things happen on college campuses involving people of opposite sexes or of same sex, and it’s not necessarily assault.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: Well, Gwen, the bottom line is, is that every allegation of sexual assault needs to be fully investigated.

And that’s what we’re trying to ensure here, because there has been great inconsistency. On some campuses, these allegations are not being investigated, as Senator McCaskill mentioned. It’s being investigated inconsistently.

We also found that, in some instances, athletic departments were investigating them, which is totally inappropriate. There needs to be the best practices, full investigation. And obviously victims need to be supported, which is not happening.

And our young people in this country deserve to be able to have a safe environment on campus. And both of us are former prosecutors. We understand that victims are not going to come forward if they feel like their allegations aren’t investigated, they aren’t being taken seriously and that they won’t receive the support that they deserve.

GWEN IFILL: Senator McCaskill, are colleges ignoring this problem or have they been covering it up?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think a little of both.

I think it’s better to hope it’s not really happening. And what this bill is going to do is force them to be more transparent, to do climate surveys, so that we have an apples-to-apples comparison on all these campuses. How do kids feel on these campuses? Are they safe? Are there — is there a lot of this going on that is not reported?

And, ultimately, building bridges between campuses and law enforcement, so that when a victim is confident and can come forward, we get a good prosecution out of it, because very few people rape someone once. These are repeat offenders, even on these college campuses.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Ayotte, some educators have said that you’re pointing the finger in wrong direction. They’re having a hard enough time educating without also having to be the cops on their campuses. What do you say to them?

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: We’re saying to them, first of all, we want to work with the higher education institutions so that they can have best practices in place on their campuses.

And we actually don’t want them to feel like they have to be the law enforcement. That’s the point of this bill, is to ensure that there is an understanding between each college and their local law enforcement agencies, so that they know that the law enforcement investigate these crimes, but the institution has a responsibility to have a safe climate on campus, for victims, when they come forward, to know that they will be supported by the institution.

We have in this bill that victims will have a confidential adviser to help them through this process. So this is part of the responsibility of these institutions, to ensure that it’s safe on campus for the young people who attend these colleges and are looking for a better life and more opportunity.

GWEN IFILL: Senator McCaskill, there are a lot of women who never get to college. What of them? This seems to be taking special attention — paying special attention to women who have a lot of advantages already. What about women who don’t?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Well, believe it or not, Gwen, the statistics show that incident of rape is actually higher among this population than the non-college population.

So, this is — this is about the requirements of a safe campus and about the conduct of students on campus. But, obviously, both Kelly and I have worked for a lot of our lives in this area of sexual assault. And we have been very active in the Violence Against Women Act and other pieces of legislation that provide support and counseling and those same services that we were talking about on college campuses to every woman who finds herself in one of these situations.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Ayotte, what difference will assessing penalties for noncompliance make in making these colleges and universities pay better attention to this problem?

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: Well, the difference I think it will make is that colleges receive a substantial amount of federal support in many ways. And this will just ensure more accountability that there is the uniformity on campus as to how these cases are being handled, that they’re reaching out to their student bodies to better educate them on how to support victims of sexual assault and also prevention efforts.

So, really, I think that’s the accountability, the teeth in this. And, as you know, our higher ed institutions receive federal dollars already under the Clery Act in Title IX. This is just putting more teeth into efforts that are already in place to ensure that institutions will — we can work with institutions for them to do the right thing and to have the right and safe climate on campus.

GWEN IFILL: Senator McCaskill, do you run the risk of shifting responsibility here from campus law enforcement — actually from local law enforcement to campus police, who may not be as skilled or prepared to deal with this?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: No. In fact, we’re hoping for the opposite.

In fact, what we’re hoping is that, with this confidential adviser, where a victim can go and get good information and the right kind of forensic interview, then she will have the confidence and the right information that will allow her to go to law enforcement and have law enforcement do what they should be doing, and that is investigating this crime.

But, in that regard, we have got to make everyone is trained. We have to make sure that not just law enforcement is trained on these crimes, but campus law enforcement is trained, and the people who are adjudicating these administrative procedures where a student could be punished by suspension or expulsion from the school, that they understand this crime.

And, right now, it is a hodgepodge of misfits that are trying to do this. As Kelly mentioned, we even have athletic departments doing it for their athletes, which is a terrible conflict of interests. I mean, it’s hard enough for a victim to come forward when she senses there might be a level playing field. They will never come forward if they sense an unlevel playing field.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, we have had the fortune this week of talking about bipartisanship involving Veterans Affairs agreements and sentencing reform.

And now we’re talking to two of you from opposite sides of the aisle. So, I want to find out what you think about the possibility that you will actually be able to get this passed this year.

Senator Ayotte, you first.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: I think that you saw a great group of bipartisan work today, four of us on both sides of the aisle.

I have worked with Claire on other issues. And I really think you’re going to find a lot of bipartisan support for this legislation because every state in this nation has a college or a higher ed institution. And we want to ensure — I know that all my colleagues do — that those campuses are safe for our young men and young women to go to.

GWEN IFILL: Senator McCaskill?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: If we can’t set aside partisan politics for this issue, then we are really without hope.

I really do think that we have a whole lot of people on both sides of the aisle that want us to get this right, that want to make it simpler for universities, but also more supportive of victims. And I’m very optimistic that we will get this done.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, thank you both very much.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: Thank you, Gwen.