Last month, Sen. Gary Peters (D–Mich.), as part of a bipartisan group of 10 other senators, introduced a new piece of legislation that aims to strengthen efforts to prevent sexual assault on college campuses.
Sen. Peters joined Senators 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.), Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R–W.V.) in co-sponsoring the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, which was introduced in the Senate on Feb. 26.
The current bill is a strengthened version of a Campus Safety and Accountability Act bill initially proposed last summer.
In a press release, Peters said the act aims to create real accountability for sexual assault crimes, and demand transparency from colleges and universities regarding the incidents that occur.
“As the father of two teenage daughters, I’m proud to join with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis to tackle the serious problem of sexual assault on college campuses,” Peters said. “This bill is a major step towards creating an environment where all students can feel safe and secure while receiving a higher education by bringing more accountability and transparency to reporting sexual assault on campuses.”
Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said because the proposed legislation is in its early stages in the Senate, it’s still too early to determine whether University policies will comply with those outlined in the act or what impact it will have on campus.
However, she did point out that the bill is largely silent on the subject of prevention efforts, especially about the training of college students, an area SAPAC has focused on.
“The bill has more of a focus on compliance matters and relationships to law enforcement, and other kinds of reporting responsibilities,” Rider-Milkovich said. “As it relates to the training of students, that is a place where the bill is less likely to impact SAPAC’s work.”
She noted that previously passed legislation, specifically the 2013 amendments to the Clery Act, provides guidance for universities in terms of staff and student training.
In contrast, the new bill is mainly focused on professionalizing the response to and reporting of sexual assaults that occur on campuses, as well as protecting the rights of the accused, modifying financial penalties and removing barriers for students reporting assault.
In an e-mail interview, LSA senior Hannah Crisler, the campaign director for I Will, a student-led initiative to spur campus-wide conversation about sexual assault, highlighted the bill’s efforts to provide resources and heighten awareness for accused students.
“If the accused are continually attacked and blamed and left without education, without advising, and without an understanding of how their act was deemed wrong then they will never learn,” she wrote.
Under the act, universities would be required to standardize their approach to student disciplinary hearings across campus. Athletic departments and other subgroups would be prohibited from handling complaints independently. Furthermore, the act mandates that schools notify both the victim and the accused within 24 hours of any decision regarding the advancement of a disciplinary measure. Such communication must inform both parties of the rights and due process protections they are entitled to.
In response to those parts of the legislation, Rider-Milkovich said she thought the University already uses fair policies in disciplinary hearings.
She also noted that the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy applies uniformly to all students, irrespective of their status, affiliation or the school or college they belong to.
The legislation will also introduce enforceable Title IX penalties and stiffer penalties for Clery Act violations.
Institutions that do not comply with certain requirements of the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, Title IX and the Clery Act would be subject to penalties as high as 1 percent of their operating budget.
“Previously, the only allowable penalty was the loss of all federal student aid which is not practical and has never been done,” Peters said in a release.
The funds gathered by the U.S. Department of Education from these higher penalties would go to a new grant program that would fund schools’ research for better methods of sexual assault prevention and crime response on their campuses.
Rider-Milkovich applauded the inclusion of the fund, and said universities, researchers and legislators have not invested enough attention in addressing gaps in knowledge on these issues.
“Seeking to reinvest any fines into research on best practices was very encouraging, and I am grateful that Senator McCaskill heard so many of us from the field who were asking for that,” she said.
However, in regards to another section of the bill focused on professionalizing responses, which would require minimum training standards for on-campus personnel and the appointment of “confidential advisors” to provide guidance for survivors, Rider-Milkovich said she had some concerns.
Currently, she said, the act specifies that confidential advisers cannot be undergraduate or graduate students, which could run contrary to a SAPAC graduate student internship program that trains students to engage with sexual assault prevention.
“I have concerns that this legislation might undermine or eliminate this professional training program at SAPAC and at other campuses across the country,” she said. “So even as the legislation requires there to be professional staff advocates, we need to have the ability to train those advocates to do the kind of work that’s required on campuses.”
The act also intends to survey students at every college and university in the country to assess sexual violence on college campuses. The results of these studies, which will be conducted biannually, will be released to inform prospective students.
Late last year, the University announced it would conduct its own survey on campus climate surrounding sexual assault.
Also, under the bill, schools will no longer be allowed to penalize students who violated other parts of student conduct code in nonviolent manner during an incident. For example, students who, in reporting sexual violence, admit to underage drinking cannot be prosecuted for that action.
Crisler said she thought that would be one of the more beneficial parts of the bill.
“This addition to sexual violence policy is beneficial because students may feel more comfortable reporting an incident that included underage drinking, where as before they could have been scared of being reprimanded,” she said. “Without that penalty it also reinforces that sexual assault happens with or without alcohol, and that survivors should not be punished.”
The act would also require institutions to enter into “memoranda of understanding” between local and campus enforcement agencies that report to campus, meaning that the two will collaborate, sharing jurisdiction. This eliminates any time wasted debating jurisdiction between the enforcement agencies.
Rider-Milkovich said agreements with the Ann Arbor Police Department, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department and Pittsfield Township already exist.
Overall, both Rider-Milkovich and Crisler said they think this legislation has a lot of potential.
“I was very pleased to see that the bill was created by a bipartisan group — it is so important that both Republicans and Democrats could gather and create something as a team,” Crisler said. “The Campus Sexual Assault and Accountability Act has a lot of hope, and is going to be a large step in the right direction towards providing safety, education, resources and hopefully prevention of sexual assault on college campuses.”