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Friday, August 1, 2014

Making campuses safer for women

Telegraph Editorial

Sen. Kelly Ayotte was among a group of U.S. senators from both parties who took a stand this week on an issue that has been a long time brewing: The disparate, inconsistent and ineffective ways colleges deal with sexual assaults.

“When it comes to stopping sexual violence on campus, we need accountability, transparency, and uniformity of standards – not the patchwork approach we have now,” Ayotte said in a statement. ...

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Sen. Kelly Ayotte was among a group of U.S. senators from both parties who took a stand this week on an issue that has been a long time brewing: The disparate, inconsistent and ineffective ways colleges deal with sexual assaults.

“When it comes to stopping sexual violence on campus, we need accountability, transparency, and uniformity of standards – not the patchwork approach we have now,” Ayotte said in a statement.

We agree.

Too many colleges have turned a blind eye to the problem. A survey by Sen. Claire McCaskill found that 40 percent of colleges investigated no sexual assaults at all over the past five years, while a White House task force established earlier this year to address the issue found that one in five women at colleges in the U.S. had been sexually assaulted. There’s something wrong with that picture.

The Justice Department reported nearly 5,000 forcible sex offenses on campuses in 2012, according to Ayotte, putting college women at a higher risk for sexual assault than their non-college peers. And those are just the ones that have been reported.

Critics have accused colleges of either ignoring the issue or covering it up, but the topic has picked up steam since the spring, when the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 institutions – including half of the vaunted Ivy League and five from Massachusetts – that were under investigation for mishandling sexual assault and harassment on campus.

It was the first time such a list was made public, and apparently the harsh light of disclosure was enough of an embarrassment to force some college administrators to rethink their approach. For instance, one of the schools on the list, Dartmouth College in Hanover, held a “Summit on Sexual Assault” last month that included nationally recognized experts on the topic, as well as officials from the departments of Justice and Education.

The bill sponsored by Ayotte will also help. It requires colleges to take certain common-sense steps, including:

n The designation of Confidential Advisors on campus to help victims of assaults through the reporting process and make it clear to them what support services are available.

n Adoption of a standard system for handling campus disciplinary cases that will no longer allow athletic departments, for example, to adjudicate complaints of sexual assault against high-profile student athletes. It also requires schools to enter into agreements with local police, spelling out the responsibilities and procedures to be followed in sexual assault cases. The idea is to eliminate cases that fall through the cracks because of jurisdictional fuzziness.

n Minimum training standards for all on-campus personnel. A lack of specialized training was identified as a chronic shortcoming on campuses.

n A requirement that every college conduct confidential student surveys about sexual violence and publish the results online. This, as much as anything, may force colleges to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves, lest administrators be subject to awkward questions about the sexual misbehavior of their students.

n Colleges that fail to comply with key provisions of the law would be subject to meaningful penalties. Current law stipulates that schools in violation can have their federal financial aid yanked – a completely unrealistic penalty that has never been enforced. The bill in the Senate would allow colleges to be fined up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.

This is an issue that everybody who has a mother, sister, wife, daughter or granddaughter should care about, but to be effective, it has to pass. In that respect, we think it can be viewed as a barometer of Washington’s political health, because, as Sen. McCaskill told the PBS Newshour’s Gwen Ifill in an interview, “If we can’t set aside partisan politics for this issue, then we are really without hope.”