Clock Ticking on Sex Assault Bill

July 23, 2012

Student advocates and others are stepping up their calls for legislators to pass a version of the 2012 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that would expand protections to more students and require additional reporting of crime statistics.

In particular, they are criticizing the version of the legislation that’s before the House of Representatives, which would eliminate the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act provision, a component that would require colleges to report instances of dating violence and stalking in addition to other crimes they must already report under the federal Clery Act. The SaVE Act is included in the Senate version. The House and Senate have each passed competing versions of VAWA, and are now trying to reconcile their differences.

SaVE would also strengthen procedures for notifying victims of their legal rights, and requiring campuswide policies for addressing and preventing sexual assault.

"Even in today’s polarized climate, we should at least be able to agree that when we send our daughters and sons to college they should be protected from stalking, violence, date rape and sexual assault," Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a press call Friday. "Some members of Congress cannot agree to that principle. Our message to Congress is simple: the House needs to pass a bipartisan Violence Against Women Act that protects everyone. Anything less is reckless and rolls back protections for millions of students on college campuses across the country."

Given that 70 percent of sexual assault victims are under 25 years old and one in four instances of sexual assault occur on campuses, Zirkin said, it’s crucial that these provisions are protected.

"Too often, schools feel that their job is to under-report or cover up so their reputations will not be injured," said Eleanor Smeal, president and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "Too often young people think that of course they can handle [sexual assault], they can do it themselves, but really they need the support. And administrators really have to take this more seriously."

However, one inclusion in the House version that Zirkin applauded, the Campus Safety Act, is problematic to others. It is the establishment of a National Center for Campus Public Safety, which would allocate $2.7 million in federal funding to create a hub for research, training and best practices in prevention and threat assessment. But officials at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education worry that such an operation could threaten the rights of students accused of sexual assault.

The use of treat assessment teams, which typically comprise officials from various parts of campus — residence life, police, student affairs and others — have become increasingly common since the shooting five years ago at Virginia Tech University. Faculty or other people on campus can refer potentially threatening students to the team, who might then refer the student to counseling or take other measures.

"We’ve seen these threat assessment teams invoked to punish protected speech, and while I think there’s obviously warranted attention to students who may be experiencing mental health issues or may actually present a threat," said Will Creeley, legislative director at FIRE, the current model "often errs on the side of throwing everybody into the hearing process and then sorting it out later with very mixed results."

Kristina Anderson, a former Virginia Tech student who was shot twice in the back and once in the toe by Seung-Hui Cho before he committed suicide at the front of the classroom where she was playing dead, said Friday that Cho’s previous stalking activity could have been a warning sign, had it been reported.

About 13 percent of college women report being stalked during a given academic year and one in five are sexually assaulted, said Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Student Association.

"These are incidents that happen day-to-day on our campuses that need the attention of Congress…. We cannot afford any rollbacks for the protections," Sanchez said. "It comes at the cost of our students and more importantly, our students’ safety."

The Senate version of the bill also contains a point of contention for FIRE. It would allow alleged victims to appeal the results of a hearing, allowing for the accused to be tried twice for the same crime.

"Although language that makes clear that hearings for both the accuser and accused are fair and impartial is included," Creeley said, "FIRE’s concern is just making sure these hearings are as fair as possible for both parties."

The act also includes federal grants for awareness education and prevention programs, and the Senate version would extend campus protections to Native women on tribal land, immigrant women and LGBT students.

In an open letter to Congress, more than 200 survivors of campus violence from 176 colleges urged the 112th Congress to pass a VAWA Reauthorization before the end of September that includes the Campus SaVE Act and the Campus Safety Act. "This is a population in crisis that cannot be ignored," they wrote. We implore you not to let us or them down." 

Cases: National: Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization