Colleges Would Have to Appoint Advocates for Sexual Assault Victims Under a New Bill

March 11, 2015

By Akane Otani at Bloomberg Business

Three U.S. senators introduced a new bill on Wednesday, March 11, that would require all colleges receiving federal funding to appoint an independent advocate to help sexual assault victims.

The revamped Survivor Outreach and Support on Campus Act, also known as the S.O.S. Campus Act, is sponsored by Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Tim Kaine of Virginia. It hits the Senate floor weeks after a dozen senators introduced a bipartisan sexual assault bill that would steepen penalties for colleges that fail to report attacks.

If passed, the legislation would require colleges receiving federal funding to appoint a confidential, independent advocate to guide students who’ve reported being sexually assaulted through the disciplinary process. The advocate would help students access medical care and forensic exams, if necessary; make sure students are aware of their options for reporting sexual assault to law enforcement; and help students get counseling and crisis intervention services. They would not require students to report the sexual assault to police or to university officials.

“We’ve heard from survivors who, after enduring an assault, are left to fend for themselves through a disciplinary hearing,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “The campus advocate fills an essential role and would ensure that survivors will always have someone in their corner.”

Boxer introduced a previous version of the S.O.S. Campus Act to Congress in July 2014. The current bill differs from the earlier one by specifying “the advocate may not be disciplined, penalized, or otherwise retaliated against by the institution for representing the interest of the victim,” whereas the previous version of the bill contained no such provision.

The 2014 bill was not enacted, but its ideas were effectively adopted by schools in the California State University system, which pledged last year to appoint independent, on-campus advocates on every one of its campuses by June 2015. Boxer said she was pleased to see the idea gain ground in California.

“Sexual assault survivors deserve an advocate who will stand up and fight for them every step of the way,” she said in a statement.

The bill, like many others that address campus sexual assault, may face scrutiny from critics who’ve said such legislation affords comparatively little protections to students accused of sexual assault. The S.O.S. Campus Act does not require universities to appoint any person to assist the accused in navigating the campus disciplinary system, something the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a nonprofit organization advocating free speech—criticized last year. It stands in contrast to models that such schools as Brown University have adopted, in which both the accused and the complainant are appointed a dean to help them through the disciplinary process.