Better Data Alone Won't Solve the Campus Rape Crisis

Sen. Claire McCaskill held her first roundtable Monday on ending the sexual assault crisis on college campuses. 

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Sen. Claire McCaskill held her first roundtable Monday on ending the sexual assault crisis on college campuses. One in five women will be sexually assaulted by the time she leaves college, according to one widely-cited survey. But to solve the crisis, we first have to understand it, and the senator admitted that current statistics are woefully inadequate to describe the problem. "I don't think anybody knows the data is even there, getting past the first problem that the data is not reliable," she said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, campus officials, and victim advocates participated in today's roundtable, debating how to best use two laws aimed at reducing sexual assault on campus. After the two-hour discussion, McCaskill said one problem is universities aren't even best using the reporting data they have. She told a group of reporters outside the hearing room:

There is a lack of clarity among campuses as to how you report and what you report. I think that we have created a regimen of requirements that are not always backed up with the infrastructure that survivors need to actually come forward and hold perpetrators accountable. Even though some universities may be checking the box, filling out the reports, and sending them in, you know, you get the sense that on many of these campuses it is just a rote activity ...

McCaskill seems convinced that universities are finally ready to deal with the campus rape crisis — most of the 450 colleges McCaskill sent surveys to have responded positively. "I've seen some minimal pushback about resources, and we're going to look at the costs of doing an annual climate survey," she told The Wire. "But I think with this problem and with the attention it is finally receiving — which is appropriate, given the seriousness of the problem — I think universities are going to be reluctant to shirk away from finding out exactly what is the problem on their campus. Because clearly the Clery data doesn't tell us now ... they're not even reporting it the same from institution to institution."

During the hearing, Holly Rider-Milkovich, the director of the sexual assault prevention and awareness center at the University of Michigan, argued that colleges need more resources and grant money to attack the problem. McCaskill came back with the suggestion that universities like Michigan already have a huge amount of resources: "You have a law school, you have a medical school, you're training psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers . . . and you have endowments, you have alumni . . . if this problem is causing such stress to universities — and I think it is . . . what I don’t understand is why we’re not getting more innovation from college campuses." Laura Dunn, the executive director of SurvJustice and a self-described rape survivor, concurred: "We don't need to be handing out money to rich and wealthy institutions."

McCaskill is currently working on campus sexual assault legislation to be completed sometime this summer with fellow Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal — she said today that they have 13 proposals on the table, including increased fines for universities who mishandle sexual assault. Whether or not these legislators or the colleges themselves come up with the most innovative proposals, it's clear who's leading the charge on all sides: women. The nine-person roundtable today featured just one man, Eric Heath, the chief of police at George Mason. The press table was similarly dominated by women. One female reporter noted with an eyeroll as we left the hearing room and piled on to the elevator, "the [Senate press] gallery doesn't look like this."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.