UC President Janet Napolitano testifies about sexual assault before US Senate

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Napolitano addresses the UC Board of Regents, introducing a proposed freeze in undergraduate tuition for the 2014-15 school year as well as initiatives to increase transfer rates from community colleges to the UC system and reach complete energy efficiency systemwide by 2025.

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UC President Janet Napolitano and three experts testified before a U.S. Senate committee Friday on how legislation can address sexual assault on college campuses.

Napolitano recommended that sexual assault training take place “from the day (students) begin on campus” and emphasized the importance of protecting confidentiality in any law. Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said at the meeting that the University of California was “probably” a model for best practices in universities dealing with sexual assault.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is working on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The new version will likely mandate confidential advisers for victims of sexual assault on college campuses and require universities to make agreements with local police departments on how to handle these cases.

According to Napolitano’s testimony, the UC system has set up confidential advocates on every campus to counsel and aid survivors of assault. The system has also implemented mandatory sexual assault training for all freshmen starting next year and has plans to expand these trainings to current students and staff.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of the university taking it seriously and other students taking it seriously,” said Meghan Warner, a UC Berkeley junior and sexual assault survivor. “(But) it’s disingenuous to call us a national leader when we’re still having survivors go through the exact same issues.”

In her official testimony, Napolitano said the requirement that local police departments handle campus trainings on issues related to sexual violence is redundant, given the training that campus police already have.

At the meeting, Napolitano said that any requirement that sexual assault cases proceed to court could discourage survivors from reporting their assaults, and that the law needs to be clear on whether confidential advocates are “truly confidential” and whether they are required to report certain information.

“A confidential advocate allows the student to maintain agency over themselves and their situation,” said Leah Romm, ASUC student advocate, in an email. “If we take that incredibly important role away, students are going to be lost and, I think, less likely to report at all.”

One senator at the meeting brought up dealing with potential wrongful accusations of sexual assault. Napolitano said the UC system is currently trying to decide which types of support to give people who claim they were wrongfully accused.

Warner said that wrongful accusations of sexual assault make up only a small percentage of accusations and that they are already given undue precedence in sexual assault cases.

Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed their support for reducing sexual assault on college campuses.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to keep everyone safe on campus,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, at the meeting.

Committee chair Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said at the meeting that he hopes to complete writing the reauthorization by Thanksgiving.

Contact Mira Chaplin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mirachaplin.