Senators call for training, legislation to improve handling of campus sexual assault

BY Kyla Calvert  June 26, 2014 at 3:51 PM EDT

Colleges, universities and Congress still have a long way to go when it comes to addressing campus sexual assault. At least that’s the impression left by events this week.

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee spent Thursday morning in a hearing about how campuses handle reporting sexual crimes and how they can better be prevented from Department of Education officials, students and sexual violence prevention advocate.

Catherine Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, told committee members colleges and universities are responding to the White House’s recent call to improve their response to incidents of sexual violence. However, from the more than 100 investigations into alleged mishandling of student reports, she testified, she knows some administrators still delay investigations and survivor supports or retaliate against students who file complaints.

Her testimony would have come as no surprise to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), who started the week on Monday by holding her third and final roundtable on campus sexual assault and how campuses deal with the reporting and prosecution of sexual crimes was under scrutiny. One focus of the final session was a need to better train the people who sexual crime victims first come to on a college campus to report the incident or seek help.

California’s state auditor reached the same conclusion about staff of California’s public universities in a report released Tuesday. The state began an audit of how the University of California’s Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses and the California State University’s Chico and San Diego campuses handle reports of sexual assault last fall. The examination found nearly a quarter of students didn’t know where the victim of a sexual crime should go for help and many university staff that might first interact with those victims aren’t properly trained.

The University of California announced a new taskforce to improve the system’s sexual assault response and prevention just ahead of the audit’s release. But universities won’t be the only ones working on the issue this summer. Sen. McCaskill has already said she is planning legislation she’ll introduce after the July 4 holiday. While she said she’s working with a bipartisan group to draft the bill, it will still have opposition. Sen. Lamar Alexandr (R-Tenn.) signaled his concern about the burden reporting requirements and dozens-of-pages-long guidelines for complying with current law already place on schools.