Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill will sit down Thursday with the leaders of national fraternities and sororities, hoping to earn allies and to kill legislation sponsored by the Greek groups to combat campus sexual assaults—a bill that, the senators say, would actually be harmful to victims.
The Safe Campus Act, written by Republican Reps. Matt Salmon and Pete Sessions, would require victims of sexual assault on college campuses to report their attackers to the police. It also allows schools to increase their standards of evidence for sexual-assault cases. The bill is backed by the nation’s major fraternity and sorority organizations, who hired a lobbying team, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, to support the bill just last month.
But the legislation is opposed by hundreds of advocacy groups for the victims of sexual assault. On Monday, 220 of those groups co-signed a letter to members of Congress deriding the bill as well as similar legislation. The groups argue that requiring victims to report sexual assaults to the police will reduce the number of assaults that are reported.
Salmon and Sessions argue that the police are much better able to investigate sexual-assault claims than school administrators, or as is the case at some colleges in the U.S., student-led panels and athletic departments. “The involvement of our justice system in these proceedings is an excellent way to ensure that all parties’ rights are protected,” Salmon said in a statement.
Allowing the schools to handle the cases, Salmon spokesman Tristan Daedalus argued, is insufficient given their limited abilities to punish proven predators. “You’re just loosing a sexual predator onto society at large,” he said.
The bill would allow schools, however, to open up their own cases as soon as a victim reports to police. The school could then suspend an accused rapist for 15 days while it proceeds with its own process and hold additional hearings to suspend the accused student in 30-day blocks after that.
Requiring students to report to law enforcement assures due process for both the victim and the accused and ensures that evidence is collected in a timely manner, Salmon believes. But he’s also open to making changes to strengthen the bill, Daedalus said.
Gillibrand said in an interview in her office Tuesday that she can see why Greek organizations backing Salmon’s bill believe that involving law enforcement seems like the right and obvious thing to do. It makes sense, she says, until you talk to victims. “The reason why this crime is so underreported is because that process in and of itself is so upsetting and so hard for them, it just never gets reported,” Gillibrand said.
That’s why she and McCaskill are so surprised to see national sorority groups supporting the legislation. The senators had previously planned to single out the sororities to try to get them to disavow the bill, unconvinced that the women’s groups truly understood the implications of the legislation they were so publicly backing. “Honestly, if they willingly are participating and supporting this bill and with knowledge, that would be shocking,” Gillibrand said.
“I have not conceded that the sororities support this alternate measure. … I think someone around them was a grave disservice to them and did not properly describe the impact of this other legislation,” Gillibrand continued. “And so I want to give them an opportunity to perhaps reject what their colleagues have done.”
But Gillibrand and McCaskill were beaten to the punch by the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference—which represent both fraternities and sororities across the country—who requested the meeting themselves.
The two umbrella groups have increased their public visibility on the issue of campus sexual assaults and have held hundreds of meetings on Capitol Hill. Given the presence of fraternities, in particular, in high-profile sexual-assault cases and accusations over the past several years, the groups hope to play a major role in reducing campus assaults.
Their request follows a letter the two Democrats sent to the NPC last week arguing that the Safe Campus Act would “stifle reporting and force victims down a one size fits all pipeline against their wishes.”
Gillibrand and McCaskill are proposing another solution, and they hope to enlist the Greek organizations to support their own bill. Salmon, for his part, has not yet taken a position on the Senate legislation.
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which has 34 Senate cosponsors including 12 Republicans, would require colleges and universities to designate a “Confidential Advisor” who would assist victims, provide information on the different reporting options available to them, and guide them through whatever process they choose.
That choice, Gillibrand and her staff say, is key. Their legislation is in part inspired by the successful partnership between the Ashland, Oregon, police department and Southern Oregon University, which developed a similar “Campus Choice” program that saw twice as many victims decide to report those crimes to the police in its first year.
The confidential adviser, Gillibrand said, would lay out options for students rather than, as the Safe Campus Act requires, forcing them to go to the police first. “[The adviser can] say, these are all your options: You either go through the school system or you go through law enforcement. In the school system, all they can do is accommodations—the highest penalty is kicking [the assailant] out—but if they don’t have evidence, they will do nothing and the best thing they can do is change your class. So you better get that rape kit,” Gillibrand said.
Allowing victims to make the choice to approach police officers on their own schedule can be hugely beneficial, Gillibrand said, both to the victim and to the police. “If you lose her on that first day because you’ve intimidated or scared her or made her feel guilty, you’ve lost your witness,” she said.
But even in cases in which victims decide not to go forward with legal proceedings, Gillibrand said, reporting can still give authorities the opportunity to link similar cases. And that, in turn, can lead to reduced sexual violence on college campuses. “If there’s two other victims, [the initial victim will] say, ‘Oh, my God, so it wasn’t me; it wasn’t that I was drinking; it wasn’t my fault.’ … They’ll be more inclined to say, ‘Of course I will testify against him,’” Gillibrand said.
The Gillibrand-McCaskill bill would also require training for school employees on sexual-assault prevention and response, and require schools to coordinate response plans with local law enforcement.
The two senators are hopeful that their pitch will be well-received by the Greek organizations, potentially killing the Safe Campus Act in favor of their own legislation.
Gillibrand summed up their pitch Tuesday: “If you mandate reporting to a police officer for anything to be done and then you say nothing can be done by the college until they’re done, well, investigations can take months, months, months—can take a year. I mean, you’re just talking about, arguably, a rapist on campus. So if you explain that to someone who‘s not been fully informed, they’ll say, ‘Oh, my goodness, I would never want that to happen.’”
And if that doesn’t work, she and McCaskill are working on next steps: reaching out fraternity and sorority alumnae and members across the country. “They need to know what their organizations are doing with their dues,” Gillibrand said.