Congress Finally Moves on Campus Sexual Assault

One in five women who attend college are sexually assaulted—and a bipartisan group of senators is launching a new bill to change that.

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Senators are rushing to pass campus sexual assault reforms, introducing a landmark bill designed to provide resources to victims and enforce accountability at institutions of higher learning.

But the machinery of government will be slow to move. Even if the law were passed and signed into law today, it would take some time for colleges and universities to implement its required changes.

Andrea Pino, a leader of End Rape on Campus who appeared with senators Wednesday, said that the bill aimed to primarily benefit those entering their freshman year in 2016. “If it’s passed, it will really impact the class of 2020, starting [with them],” Pino told The Daily Beast. “So it’s definitely going to be a long time coming.”

But the publicity the bill generates about campus sexual violence, Pino and fellow End Rape On Campus leader Annie Clark said, would help students right away.

Lawmakers introduced the bill on the last week before politicians left Washington, D.C. for their August recess, meaning that consideration of the bill will happen during the fall “red zone”—the period of time from when freshmen first get on campus until Thanksgiving, when freshmen are most vulnerable to sexual assault.

The bipartisan reforms proposed by senators, led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill, require campuses to designate confidential advisors for assault victims; establish standards for the training of on-campus personnel; conduct an annual public survey on campus sexual violence; create a uniform disciplinary process; and enforce accountability by increasing fines for not complying with existing laws.

“If you are a young women that attends college today, you are more likely to be sexual assaulted than those who don’t,” said an impassioned Sen. Gillibrand at a press conference surrounded by Republican and Democratic colleagues. “Think about that. The price of a college education should not include a one-in-five chance of being sexually assaulted.”

The bill has already attracted a wide array of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle: Senators Marco Rubio, Dean Heller, Kelly Ayotte, Chuck Grassley, Richard Blumenthal, and Mark Warner all showed up to support the introduction of the bill.

Opposition to the bill has been slow to materialize. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said she was concerned the legislation includes “no mention of due process.”

“U.S. senators have to care [about this],” Sommers said. “They are the guardians of a legal tradition that takes exacting precautions to avoid convicting an innocent person of a crime. Where are the precautions in this proposed legislation? Nowhere to be found. Presumed guilty seems to be the new principle.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation plans to finalize a research project in coming weeks, which will include the organization’s critiques of the bill, hopefully “in time to influence the legislation,” said Cully Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the organization.

McCaskill did not think it noteworthy to mention outside groups as the primary obstacle to the bill’s passage. Asked by The Daily Beast about her concerns, she said the only major consideration up in the air was “just getting time on the [Senate] floor—there's a lot of things that we need to be doing right now—and trying to elbow our way in.”

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McCaskill spokeswoman Sarah Feldman added, “We think this is going to be a tough bill to oppose, given the immense amount of time, information, research, feedback, and buy-in that went into crafting it, on a bipartisan basis, for months.”

Gillibrand and McCaskill hope for floor time in September, but have not yet gotten any commitments from Senate leadership. They both said they were confident the bill would pass by within the current congressional session, which essentially concludes at the end of this year.