Slow Bus

07.03.14

Campus Sex Assault Law Could Be ‘Two Years’ Away

Everyone agrees that there’s an urgent need to reform the laws surrounding sexual assaults on campus. But getting agreement on those reforms could take a long, long time.

Survivors are demanding that Congress address the issue of campus sexual assault. But congressional staff are privately warning victims’ advocates it could take as much as “two years” to pass a bill that reforms the broken process that universities use to handle these crimes on their campuses.

It seems as though each day, there is another survivor coming forward with a story about the crime against them being treated with either incompetence or indifference by a university. At least 55 universities are under investigation after being the subject of complaints that they violated Title IX.

But the issue is sensitive and complex—involving not just survivors and school administrations but advocates, counselors, experts, and law enforcement. And the path to legislation seems unfocused, and is so far unfinished, threatening to push even the introduction of legislation into the fall semester. Passage of any bill could take 18 months or more after that.

“The legislation is incredibly complex, this is not an easy problem to solve through a law… it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a social and cultural issue as well. It’s about changing the way society thinks about sexual assault,” said Tracey Vitchers, the board chairman at Students Active for Ending Rape.

Still, there is a long list of concerns which legislation may be able to address: prevention of sexual assault; reporting of the crimes; counseling; the campus investigative process, the role of law enforcement; the campus hearing process; university sanctions for those found guilty of a crime; penalties for failing to comply with existing laws like Title IX or the Clery Act. But figuring out what problems to prioritize and how to address them seems to have led to prolonged deliberations from the Senate as to how such a bill might be written.

“I think it has to start out unfocused in order to get focused,” Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, told The Daily Beast. “The problem with this issue is that there are so many different perspectives, and so it’s very difficult to narrow it down to just one thing…it’s divisive in that people can’t come to an agreement about what’s most important.”

“I think we forget what a month or a semester makes in a student’s lifetime, so that's why we it’s imperative we address it quickly. Every day that goes by is a day a survivor has to sit in the dining hall with [his or her] perpetrator.”

After the White House formed its task force to address campus sexual assault in January, Sens. Claire McCaskill, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Richard Blumenthal—all Democrats—teamed up to tackle the problem, with McCaskill holding a series of roundtables to air the recommendations of victims advocates, lawyers and campus security officials.

So far, the senators have not yet been able to settle on the scope of the legislation. Asked about it in the Capitol, McCaskill said it would take a long conversation to explain the bill—a conversation she was unwilling to have before the publication of this story.

Blumenthal relayed a series of vague topics that he hoped to be addressed in the bill to The Daily Beast: “Title IX, issues relating to penalty, confidentiality of reporting, fairness of process within college disciplinary structures.”

Although Blumenthal hoped that the bill would be done before the summer congressional recess, conversations with multiple people close to the process have yielded estimates that the bill could be introduced anywhere from one week to two months from now.

“The bravery of these young women selflessly telling their personal stories to total strangers just so that no other student will have the same experience has been incredibly inspiring to the senator,” said Glen Caplin, a spokesman for Gillibrand. “Because of them, we are optimistic that Congress will act, and there is no doubt that because of their passion and involvement in the process we will have a better bill for it.”

But behind the scenes, senate aides have been tamping down expectations for a quick fix. The bill could take some “two years” to draft and negotiate before being passed into law, Vitchers has been told.

For eager advocates pressing for urgent reforms, that’s an enormous amount of time.

“I think we can forget what a month or a semester makes in a student’s lifetime, so that’s why we it’s imperative we address it quickly,” said Dana Bolger, founding co-director at Know Your IX. “Every day that goes by is a day a survivor has to sit in the dining hall with [his or her] perpetrator.”

A spokesperson for Senator McCaskill, Sarah Feldman, responded: “Claire has said she believes this is something we can get done this year, and with a partnership between Claire and Senator Gillibrand in the lead—and Republicans already working with us—we’re confident that’s a realistic goal.” A spokesperson for Sen. Gillibrand echoed that sentiment.