At a Capitol Hill press conference this morning, a bipartisan group of senators announced new federal legislation regarding institutional responses to allegations of sexual assault on campus. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, Richard Blumenthal, Chuck Grassley, Dean Heller, and Mark Warner were joined by victims’ rights advocates in sketching the broad outlines of the proposed legislation, titled the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The text of the legislation was posted by the The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this afternoon.
As presently written, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act contains measures intended to correct glaring failures that continue to plague the current system of adjudicating campus sexual assault allegations. For example, in an attempt to prevent student-athletes from receiving preferential treatment following charges of sexual violence, the Act would prohibit institutions from funneling allegations against student-athletes into separate disciplinary proceedings conducted by athletic departments. In an effort to promote transparency, the Act would also require the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to make public a wide range of information regarding its investigations, resolutions, and enforcement actions. These are positive steps.
Perhaps most promisingly, the Act would require institutions to enter into agreements with local law enforcement agencies to “clearly delineate responsibilities and share information” regarding crimes like sexual assault. Sexual assault should be understood and addressed as the felony it is, whether it occurs on or off campus. Mandating a formal relationship with local law enforcement is a small but necessary step towards ensuring that the expertise, experience, and resources of the criminal justice system are brought to bear on these investigations.
Unfortunately, the Act does not adequately address the fundamental conflict of interest created by empowering campus administrators, whose primary loyalties lie with their institutions, to internally resolve such serious criminal allegations. Nor does the Act contain provisions to safeguard the due process rights of accused students. Campus disciplinary systems lack both the procedural safeguards necessary to protect the accused and the power necessary to properly punish those found guilty of heinous crimes.
FIRE will have more on the Act in the coming days and weeks and looks forward to working with legislators on this important issue.