A bipartisan coalition of 12 U.S. senators led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation Feb. 26 to reform the way colleges and universities nationwide handle sexual violence on campus, emphasizing the protection and rights of both survivors and students accused of sexual assault.

The proposed bill, titled the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, increases penalties for universities in violation of Title IX, establishes new resources for survivors, adds transparency to disciplinary procedures and mandates campus climate surveys to assess further action.

As the culmination of the efforts of six Democratic and six Republican senators to reform sexual assault response at institutions of higher education, the bill aims to “flip the current incentives of a broken system to provide real accountability and transparency from higher education institutions,” according to a joint press release from all 12 senators.

An enhanced version of an earlier bill proposed in July 2014, the legislation was formed with input from sexual assault survivors, college students, university faculty, law enforcement and sexual violence reform advocates nationwide. The Senate Subcommittee on Financing and Contracting Oversight, chaired by McCaskill, distributed a survey to over 350 public and private colleges and universities in April 2014 in an attempt to discern the current state of sexual assault response on college campuses.

The bill serves to make universities more accountable by enforcing stiffer penalties for violations of Title IX, a 1972 educational amendment that aims to prevent sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal funding.

Georgetown University Women’s Center Director Laura Kovach said that CASA helps to supplement the policies already in place through Title IX at Georgetown.

“The Campus Accountability and Safety Act will enhance the work that is currently happening under Title IX,” Kovach said.

Schools that are not in compliance with the bill may face a financial penalty of up to 1 percent of the school’s operating budget. The funds will go to a competitive grant program, which will fund colleges and universities to apply to research best practices for addressing these issues.

As of January 2015, the Department of Education is investigating 94 postsecondary institutions for Title IX violations, including the Catholic University of America, Harvard College, Dartmouth College and Brown University.

“Right now, some colleges and universities are more inclined to expel a student for cheating on an exam than for committing sexual assault,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a press release. “We know this problem is pervasive and too often swept under the rug by institutions that fail students.”

The act also attempts to change campus culture by establishing new support services for survivors, such as designated confidential advisers to assist their interaction with law enforcement.

Jen Schweer, the associate director of sexual assault response and prevention services, emphasized the importance of confidential resources, ensuring that students are able to report sexual assault cases with minimum risk.

“These pieces allow students to learn about and access a system that may have previously felt like too much of a risk for them to enter,” Schweer said.

Take Back the Night President Sarah Rabon (COL ’16) added that additional staff on college campuses to address sexual assault could be key to CASA’s success at Georgetown.

“Georgetown has some truly fantastic resources that assist survivors of assault. However, these staffers tend to have countless responsibilities,” Rabon said. “If Georgetown had more staff to serve survivors, the quality and quantity of programming and education on sexual assault would undoubtedly increase.”

Transparency and fairness in disciplinary processes are another key part of the bill, which mandates a single uniform process for campus student disciplinary proceedings, coordinating with law enforcement and enforcing minimum training standards for campus employees.

Kovach emphasized the need to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable for their actions and believes CASA will help ensure universities, including Georgetown, live up to such a standard.

“The statistical reality is that there is a small number of perpetrators who are committing the majority of rapes,” Kovach said. “Accountability is key, and this law wants to reinforce that universities are doing everything within their power to provide a process that is safe for survivors to come forward and seek out the on-campus adjudication process.”

Finally, the bill mandates student campus climate surveys to garner the feedback of students regarding sexual assault on campuses, a potential landmark reform on incident reporting.

The proposed biannual surveys will be standardized, anonymized and published online for students to take into consideration when choosing colleges and universities to attend.

According to GUSA Secretary of Student Safety and Health Nora West (SFS ’15), Georgetown is already in the process of implementing a campus climate survey.

“As of now the survey is scheduled to be distributed in October or November 2015. The process is just beginning: a committee of administrators and students who work on this issue is being created,” West said.

As a sexual assault peer educator, West believes that the release of anonymous survey data would increase student awareness.

“The results of the anonymous survey will give us a better understanding of what’s happening on campus and will allow us to incorporate Georgetown-focused statistics into the workshops we lead,” West said. “Hopefully CASA will also increase student awareness around this issue and perhaps make them more likely to reach out to SAPE for a workshop.”

The Senate bill is an extension of an increased national focus on college sexual assault. The White House created a Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014, whose recommendations led to changes in Georgetown’s sexual assault policy in September, including the addition of outside investigators in sexual assault cases.

Sexual Assault Peer Educator Haley Maness (NHS ’15) pointed out that Georgetown is in compliance with many of the policies CASA would mandate.

“Believe it or not, Georgetown is in beyond compliance with a number of initiatives in the act, including allowing survivors to know their rights and employing individuals who can report cases to the Title IX coordinator,” Maness said.

However, Maness stressed that there are many facets of sexual violence still unaddressed.

“Georgetown needs to expand its programming and its focus to include dating violence, stalking and harassment as well as sexual assault, so I’m glad to see that those initiatives are mentioned in the act,” Maness said.

Schweer stressed the importance of continual education on the topic of sexual violence on campus.

“It’s critical that we continue to educate on campus, through programs like ‘I Am Ready’ and ‘Are You Ready?,’ engage with our sexual assault peer educators and create policies on campus that show a commitment to being survivor-centered,” Schweer said.

According to Kovach, the most important shift CASA can make is one of culture, transforming how Georgetown as a community views sexual violence.

“Bottom line: We need rapists to stop raping. We need a culture that supports survivors when they come forward so we can hold rapists accountable for their actions,” Kovach said. “We need everyone on the same page regarding support, resources and roles so that survivors can begin their healing process and navigate either the on- or off-campus judicial systems. Title IX and CASA can help us meet those needs.”

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