Proposed legislation would address campus sexual assault policies

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Two bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday aim to raise the standard of how administrators at all federally funded colleges and universities respond to sexual assault cases.

Both bills would require colleges and universities to hire a confidential advocate for sexual assault survivors. The bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act would strengthen the way that campuses prevent and respond to sexual assault, while the Survivor Outreach and Support Campus Act outlines specific rules for confidential advocates.

The proposed legislation follows a string of bills to improve campus sexual assault policies. In February, a bill making sexual assault policies on California campuses more “victim-centered” was announced in Sacramento. In June, a bill requiring campuses to immediately report campus crimes, unless requested otherwise by survivors, passed in the California State Assembly.

UC President Janet Napolitano endorsed the latter bill — introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, and Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego — in a letter to Boxer on Tuesday.

“The University of California strongly agrees with the goals of this legislation to ensure that all colleges and universities have a single point of contact for victims of sexual assault, and to provide victims of sexual assault with ready access to the information and services they need,” Napolitano said in the letter.

Aside from mandating that college campuses hire a confidential advocate, the bill requires that all such advocates report to someone outside of universities’ existing chains of command for sexual assault adjudication, refer survivors to services and attend any university proceedings related to the assault if a survivor so requests.

UC Berkeley is in the process of hiring its first confidential survivor advocate. According to UC spokesperson Brooke Converse, the UC system will ensure that all its campuses do the same.

Eight Democratic and Republican senators authored the more far-reaching Campus Accountability and Safety Act. It would mandate the annual publication of an anonymous survey regarding students’ experiences with sexual violence and would increase the current $35,000 penalty for a Clery Act violation to $150,000. The Clery Act requires all schools that participate in federal financial aid programs to report incidents of sexual assault and other crimes to the federal government.

The bill would also allow the U.S. Department of Education to fine schools up to 1 percent of their operating budgets for violations of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education, including sexual assault and harassment.

UC Berkeley sophomore and sexual assault survivor Meghan Warner had concerns that the different law enforcement agencies in Berkeley, including UCPD and Berkeley Police Department, would make it difficult to implement a provision in the Campus Accountability and Safety Act that would require local law enforcement agencies to share information about sexual assault cases.

But Warner agrees with another provision in the bill that would prevent students who report sexual assault from being sanctioned for other campus code violations, such as alcohol consumption.

UC Berkeley junior and sexual assault survivor Sofie Karasek called the two bills good first steps to addressing campus sexual violence — a long way, she noted, from what she said was past inaction on the issue.

“If we increase the amount of federal accountability over how colleges address sexual violence, then they’ll be forced to take serious steps to prevent it from happening in the first place, and will also have to adequately punish assailants who commit sexual assaults,” Karasek said in an email.

In February, 31 current and former UC Berkeley students, including Karasek and Warner, filed two federal complaints against the campus for allegedly mishandling sexual assault and harassment cases. In June, the state auditor’s office released a comprehensive audit of the sexual assault policies at four California universities, which found that some UC Berkeley staff were insufficiently trained to respond to sexual assault cases.

Contact Sophie Mattson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @MattsonSophie.