Joined by a bipartisan group of senators and activists, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation Wednesday morning with the potential to transform how colleges and universities respond to sexual violence on campus. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which comes in the wake of a report released in April by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, includes a number of key provisions, such as new resources and support services for survivors of sexual violence, minimum training standards for campus personnel, an annual comprehensive campus climate survey and, most significantly, new enforceable penalties for violations of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education and legally requires colleges and universities to investigate complaints of sexual misconduct on campus. Previously, the Department of Education could only penalize schools for failing to fix Title IX violations by completely cutting federal funding—including funding for financial aid programs like Pell Grants and Stafford Loans—which would harm students more than the schools themselves. As a result, the Department of Education has not invoked such a punishment in the 42-year history of the law, opting instead to negotiate with schools to bring them in compliance with the law. Critics have argued that this allows institutions to violate Title IX with relative impunity. The new penalties will allow the Department of Education to fine colleges up to 1 percent of their operating budget if they are found responsible for violations of the law. Unsurprisingly, higher education lobbying groups are already pushing back against the legislation. Of particular concern to school officials is the campus climate survey. Under the new legislation, schools would have to survey students (anonymously) each year about their experiences with sexual assault and post the results online for the public to see. Proponents of the measure say that it will allow parents and high school students to make informed decisions when comparing schools. Additionally, Dr. David Lisak, a well-known sexual violence researcher, told the Huffington Post that climate surveys would provide valuable data to further improve how schools confront sexual violence. School officials, however, claim that the requirement would put an undue burden on colleges and universities and require them to create new administrative positions to conduct the surveys. Sen. McCaskill told reporters at the press conference that she and other sponsors are “optimistic” for a September vote on the bill. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce an identical bill in the House of Representatives later today. However, the bill has not yet made it on the agenda for the September session, which typically lasts less than four weeks, complicating hopes of passing it before the inauguration of the new Congress in January. Meanwhile, Politico higher education reporter Allie Grasgreen reports that the Department of Education has placed Pace University under investigation for alleged violations of Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act, increasing the list of colleges and universities under federal investigation to 72.
Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.