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12 senators push for crackdown on campus assaults

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

WashingtonA bipartisan group of 12 U.S. senators introduced legislation Thursday that would do more to protect students from sexual assault and require colleges and universities to do more to investigate allegations.

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act "would flip the current incentives of a broken system to provide real accountability and transparency from higher education institutions. The legislation would professionalize the response to and reporting of sexual assaults that occur on campuses to better protect and empower students, while also protecting the rights of accused students," said the sponsors that include Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Over the last year, there have been growing reports of questions about how colleges and universities are handling allegations of sexual assault — especially when star athletes are accused of wrongdoing.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, a father of two teenage girls including one in college and one soon to start, also is cosponsoring the bill. He noted that many universities haven't done enough and the issue is severely underreported.

"A little over 40 percent of colleges have not had one investigation of sexual assualt in the last five years. How do you have 40 percent? It shows that they are not even paying attention to it," Peters said in an interview. "Young women are basically suffering in silence and in the shadows and they don't feel that there's support — and that's simply unacceptable."

Students should feel safe on college campuses, Peters said.

The legislation woule extend the amount of time assault victims have to file a case with the Department of Education, and sets new notification requirements for both survivors and accused students involved in the campus disciplinary process. It would make penalties for universities that fail to comply tougher — fines of up to $150,000 per violation over the current $35,000.

Colleges and universities would be required to designate advisers to assist victims of sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. "Confidential Advisers will coordinate support services and accommodations for survivors, provide information about options for reporting, and provide guidance or assistance — at the direction of the survivor — in reporting the crime to campus authorities and/or local law enforcement. Schools will no longer be allowed to sanction students who report sexual violence but reveal a non-violent student conduct violation in good faith, like underage drinking," the members said.

The bill would require colleges to use one uniform process for campus student disciplinary proceedings and could no longer allow athletic departments or other subgroups to handle complaints. "Schools must now provide written notification to the accused as well as the victim of any decision to move forward with a campus disciplinary proceeding within 24 hours of that decision. The notice must include details of complaint, a summary of the disciplinary proceeding and the rights and due process protections available to both parties.

Congress would also require that students be surveyed about their experience with sexual violence to get an accurate picture of this problem. The new biannual survey would be standardized and anonymous, with the results made public "so that parents and high school students can make an informed choice when comparing universities."

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, colleges and universities are legally obligated to provide an environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs and activities.

Last year, the Obama administation announced investigations of dozens of schools, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University, for their handling of sexual assault complaints. The inquiries followed President Barack Obama's formation of a task force, announced a year ago last week, that suggested ways of preventing and responding to assaults.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a report in May listing 55 post-secondary institutions under investigation. By the end of 2014, the number had risen to 94.

Though the cases under investigation at the schools are confidential, it became public last year that UM was facing an inquiry over its handling of sex assault allegations against former football player Brendan Gibbons. The Wolverine kicker was arrested after a female student accused him of rape in 2009, but he was allowed to remain enrolled and on the team until four years later.

When the Education Department began its investigations, it opened one case at UM and two cases at MSU. In October, federal officials opened a case at GVSU. All of the cases remain open as of January, the Detroit News reported earlier.

Since then, the universities have updated their sexual misconduct policies and taken steps to show they will take violations seriously. UM said in January it would join 26 other colleges and universities in a sexual assault "climate survey" this spring. More than 800,000 students are expected to participate.

In December, MSU released a report showing that from August 2011 to August 2014, the school received 174 reports of sexual misconduct involving students. Of those, 47 were investigated and 127 did not undergo formal inquiries.

At UM, students reported 129 alleged incidents of sexual misconduct to officials from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, according to a similar report released in late November. Of those incidents, UM found 11 violations and expelled one student, according to the report.

Conservative commentator George Will argued in a column in January that federal authorities are overreaching.

"The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has stripped colleges and universities of a crucial component of self government," wrote Will, who drew protests when he spoke at MSU last month. "Using ludicrous statistics based on flimsy social science to manufacture hysteria about a 'rape epidemic' on campuses, the federal government is mandating the overthrow of due process in adjudicating accusations of sexual assault."

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

Detroit News Staff Reporter Kim Kozlowski contributed