New Bill Aims To Hold Colleges Accountable For Campus Sex Crimes

Under new bipartisan legislation, colleges and universities could face strong new penalties for mishandling cases of sexual assault on campus. Critics question whether they can be implemented.

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American colleges and universities could face stiff, new penalties for mishandling cases of sexual assault on campus under new bipartisan legislation. The bill introduced in the U.S. Senate yesterday is the latest of several efforts to crack down on schools that have been said to cover up violence more than punish it. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Bill sponsors say too many schools still don't investigate allegations of rape at all. And for those who do, it's too often something of a farce, like when student athletes are investigated by the athletic department. Under the new bill, schools that do that could face fines up to 1 percent of their budget. For a big university, that could mean tens of millions of dollars.

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SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: This is a significant shift in the incentives to do this right.

SMITH: Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says alleged victims seeking justice should no longer have to resort to taking their painful stories public.

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GILLIBRAND: We are going to lift the burden of solving this problem off the shoulders of our survivors and placing it firmly on those of our colleges and universities.

SMITH: For their part, universities have been reluctant to comment publicly; dozens declined to be interviewed for this report. But a group that represents them says schools don't need the threat of more fines. And Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education says he worries about how new sanctions will be implemented.

TERRY HARTLE: It's obviously a huge sum of money. And the notion that federal bureaucrats could do that in an arbitrary and capricious fashion strikes me as being terribly excessive.

SMITH: Hartle also worries the legislation comes on top of already conflicting guidelines and laws. As Dartmouth provost Carolyn Dever puts it, we're all on the same page, for example, in wanting to provide survivors with a strictly confidential adviser as the bill would require. But, she says, implementation can be sticky.

CAROLYN DEVER: Everybody wants to get it right, but I do share concerns with colleagues. If you're going to say, OK, we're going to garnish 1 percent of your operating budget, there is going to need to be some clarification about a couple of the major, obvious conflicts or else the thing will be unenforceable.

SMITH: Advocates say the new fines are needed since the only existing sanction is so severe it's not credible - that is that government officials can cut all federal funding.

KATE LAWSON: I think that there was always the sense that they might. But sort of the proof is in the pudding in the sense that they never had.

SMITH: Kate Lawson, Title IX coordinator at Xavier University, welcomes more oversight. Xavier has already adopted best practices, she says, but not all schools have.

LAWSON: I have colleagues who are still, you know, struggling to make it be known to the upper administration at their schools that this is a really important issue.

SMITH: Under the new bill, schools would also have to survey students about sexual assault on campus and then publish the results online.

LAURA DUNN: It literally brought tears to my eyes.

SMITH: Laura Dunn, a survivor turned activist, says in addition to new fines, schools would face the threat of prospective students and parents doing some real comparison shopping.

DUNN: Now colleges don't have any place to hide, and parents will be able to determine which schools mean what they say and will protect their students when they're on campus.

SMITH: But another group that represents colleges calls it misguided to expect schools to investigate and adjudicate alleged rapes. Ann Neal is with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

ANN NEAL: If we really want to deal with this serious crime, the best approach is to go to the criminal justice system and not to expect some sort of sensitivity brigade on our college campuses.

SMITH: Supporters of the bill insist it's not an either-or proposition. They say schools need to be part of the solution. As one cosponsor put it, they can circle the wagons and fight it or just admit they need help. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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