The statistics on the extent of the problem are sobering. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, along with one out of every 16 men. What’s more, the vast majority of these survivors – 80 percent, to be exact – never report these incidents to the police, according to data from RAINN. Common reasons for not reporting include fear of retaliation from the perpetrator and his or her friends, a belief that the police cannot or will not do anything to help, and feeling the incident was not important enough to bring to the attention of authorities. Simply put, we have to do more not only to combat incidents of sexual violence, but also to create campus environments in which survivors feel safe coming forward.
But some worry that the incoming administration change could threaten much of the progress that has been made in the past five years to hold schools accountable for their investigations into sexual assault allegations. At this point, analysis of President-Elect Donald Trump’s priorities for education policy is mostly speculative. During his campaign, Trump rarely addressed education issues and said that the Department of Education could be “largely eliminated.” Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has not commented on how she plans to handle campus sexual assault, but advocates are worried that, under a president who has himself been accused of sexual assault, Title IX enforcement may be at risk.
Congress, however, could still pass legislation to address the issue, and several bipartisan bills that have been introduced suggest there is genuine desire on both sides of the aisle to work toward safer campuses:
- The Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) (H.R. 1310/S. 590). Introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and in the Senate by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), this bipartisan legislation would strengthen reporting requirements under the Clery Act for schools that receive federal funding. The bill would also require them to enhance their campus security policies, among other changes.
- The HALT Campus Sexual Violence Act (H.R. 2680). This bipartisan legislation was introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), and has garnered nearly 100 cosponsors. It would, among other things, require the U.S. Department of Education to publicly disclose schools that are under Title IX investigation, and would strengthen penalties for schools that are found to be in violation.
- The SOS Campus Act (H.R. 1490/S. 706). Introduced by Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) in the House and by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in the Senate, this legislation would require schools that receive federal funding to have designated, independent on-campus advocates to work on sexual assault prevention and response. (Some schools have already hired such advocates on staff voluntarily.)
- The Campus Sexual Assault Whistleblower Protection Act (H.R. 5972). Introduced by Rep. Speier, this legislation takes aim at some of the recent incidents of assault survivors being charged with and punished for “honor code” breaches. It would provide protection for students who come forward to report assault, either against themselves or others, from these violations or other forms of retaliation from school administrators.
From the broad bipartisan coalition that stood together on the House floor in June to read a victim statement in full to the more than 80 members who have signed on as supporters of the HALT Act, both parties seem to be in agreement that there is more Congress could be doing to protect students from sexual assault. And the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, which formally codifies the right of sexual assault survivors to receive a comprehensive forensic exam free of charge and have their rape kits preserved, passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers and was signed into law.
With 114th Congress adjourned, none of the proposed legislation will pass before the next Congress convenes, but the bills could be reintroduced in 2017. The next Congress will also have the (overdue) reauthorization of the Higher Education Act on its agenda, which will present new opportunities to address campus sexual assault legislatively.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – this is an area where Congress can only do so much. At its heart, this issue is about culture. How can we create a culture where students understand the concept of consent and know how to get ask for it? Where we don’t rush to blame a survivor by asserting that he or she must in some way be at fault? Where schools have procedures in place that allow them to fairly adjudicate cases and punish those found guilty in a meaningful way?
While the federal government, as well as state and local lawmakers, can certainly do their part to strengthen accountability measures, a good deal of this will require the collective efforts of students, parents, college faculty and administrators, and the media. These groups have already made notable progress. After sharing her story of sexual assault, for example, 17-year-old survivor Chessy Prout helped launch #IHaveTheRightTo, “a social media campaign that engages participants to be a positive force for change bringing safety and respect to pop culture.” And after an Access Hollywood recording of Donald Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault became public, author Kelly Oxford inspired more than one million women to share their stories via Twitter.
How do we go about creating cultural change? It’s easier said than done, but I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Have you been involved in efforts to create safer and more accountable campuses? What do you think of the bills highlighted above? And what could we all be doing more of to ensure that no one has to spend his or her college years feeling unsafe? Feel free to comment below, or respond to me via Twitter!
Lydia Hall is a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she works on education, civil rights, and other issues. A graduate of Tufts University and of Teachers College at Columbia University, where she studied sociology and education with a concentration in policy, Lydia is interested in helping to bridge the gap between Capitol Hill and the classroom. Feel free to connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.