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Bill Targets Handling Of Campus Sex Assault

HARRISONBURG — Sen. Mark Warner was one of eight U.S. senators who proposed legislation Wednesday aimed at holding colleges more accountable to protect students from sexual assault on campus.

Called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, the bill was sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and introduced with bipartisan support.

The legislation comes as colleges and universities around the country are under increased scrutiny for their handling of reports of sexual misconduct.

James Madison University is one of more than 70 higher education institutions under federal investigation for the way they handle sexual assault complaints.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is looking into complaints of Title IX violations.

Other Virginia schools being investigated include the University of Virginia, University of Richmond and the College of William and Mary.

During a conference call, Warner, a Democrat, said he is appalled by the statistic that women have a better chance of being sexually assaulted if they attend college than if they don’t.

As a father of three college-aged daughters, he said he was heartbroken over the testimony of sexual assault victims who spoke at a press conference held Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Members of his staff have been in touch with most colleges in Virginia, he said, and get the sense that there are responsible people who want to see significant changes.

Warner wants Virginia’s higher education institutions to be known for their excellent academics, as well as being safe locations for students, he said.

“We’ve got to work through that with JMU and universities all over Virginia, but there needs to be consequences if you don’t take this issue seriously,” Warner said.

The bill introduced Wednesday includes a series of amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.

It would require colleges to designate advocates to discuss victims’ experiences and options for pressing charges confidentially.

The advocates, called “confidential advisors,” would also be trained to conduct forensic interviews, which can be used during criminal proceedings.

The requirements would address common complaints of poor training among school employees tasked with responding to allegations of sexual violence.

Survivors of sexual assault were at Wednesday’s press conference to tell their stories demonstrating the need for changes.

“The institutional betrayal that these students face is sometimes worse than the assault itself,” said Annie Clark, a survivor and advocate. “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 I should look back on that game to figure out what I would do differently in that situation.”

Clark said the problem can’t be legislated away, but that the bill is a good first step that gives the Department of Education the “teeth” that victims and advocates have been asking for.

Under the proposed legislation, colleges would be required to create an amnesty clause so students reporting crimes would not have to fear retaliation if, for example, they had been drinking underage at the time of the assault.

Colleges would also be required to develop and use uniform disciplinary processes across campus, which would prevent groups such as athletics departments from self-policing.

The bill does not only concern existing students; colleges would be required to develop and administer an annual survey to gauge students’ experiences with sexual violence and harassment.

Results from the surveys would be submitted to Congress and publicly available, school by school, so they can be reviewed by prospective students.

The surveys may provide a much different look at what’s actually happening on campuses around the nation, as sex crimes are grossly underreported, advocates say.

Institutions found to be in noncompliance with the bill’s provisions could be subject to monetary penalties of up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.

At a meeting earlier this month, JMU officials said most victims who seek counseling services don’t pursue criminal charges or university sanctions against their alleged attackers.

Tricia Crocker, who directs the Sexual Assault Trauma Empowerment program at JMU, said there’s a variety of reasons why the victims she works with never seek charges.

“They’re [maybe] not sure whether what they experienced really qualifies as a crime or a violation of student conduct; they’d rather it just go away, so they don’t want any more attention,” Crocker said. “It’s very individual, but the vast majority are not interested [in pressing charges].”

Josh Bacon, director of the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices — formerly known as Judicial Affairs — said his office rarely sees more than three or four sexual assault cases in a busy year.


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