Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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Law should require universities to disclose sexual assaults

August 4, 2014

San Francisco Chronicle
By Jackie Speier

August 4, 2014

It's a raucous Friday night at Alpha Beta's weekly rager, music booming over the red-2cup-strewn lawn, bodies squeezed like sardines inside the rickety house, sorority girls and frat boys socializing amid a haze of alcohol. Or maybe it's a small gathering at a friend's apartment, classmates catching up after a long week of exams, glasses of wine in hand.

And then, somehow, it happens.

The dream of a college degree becomes a nightmare for the 20 percent of female students and 6 percent of male students who are victims of actual or attempted sexual assault. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students suffer even more, as 70 percent of them experience sexual harassment or violence.

It happens between acquaintances, friends and even among established couples. It does not discriminate by race, gender or socioeconomic status.

For victims, it can come to define their college experience.

Last week, I introduced bipartisan legislation, the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency on Campus Sexual Violence Act, which changes the incentives for institutions to respond to this epidemic, increases the information available to students and parents about how institutions protect campus safety, and increases accountability for institutions that fail to meet their obligations to sexual-assault survivors.

The bill authorizes increased penalties for noncompliance with federal law, requires the U.S. Department of Education to disclose universities under investigation and its enforcement actions, and mandates that universities conduct annual climate surveys to assess the scope of the problem based on gender and sexual orientation.

When parents visit colleges with their children as prospective students, their first question is about safety. Knowledge is power, and currently parents are powerless in assessing how seriously schools are taking sexual assault. The student tour guides point to blue light phones, but don't mention the crime statistics the institutions has to report through the Jeanne Clery Act or the fact that the school is under investigation for failing to comply with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

I know because I am a parent with a daughter in college who asked the same question. It's a parent's horror to learn about serial predators, who average six victims, because universities are reluctant to stop them from stalking and harassing their victims on and off campus.

Too often, young men accused of sexual assault are protected. Many colleges sweep these crimes under the rug to avoid loss of enrollment and prestige. If punished, perpetrators are often met with "consequences" like getting expelled after they graduate or writing an essay.

The Department of Education has revealed that it is investigating 71 schools for alleged civil rights violations under Title IX for mishandling sexual assault cases. Four of the top five universities in the nation as ranked by U.S. News & World Report - Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia - are or have been under investigation. Our local universities aren't immune, either.

Survivors have led the way in shining a light on this epidemic by developing thoughtful, effective strategies for reform. I met with many survivors, one of whom described Title IX as the "cute, fluffy gorilla in the room" - very powerful in its authority to remove all federal funding from institutions that don't comply with federal laws, but much less effective in implementation because the only remedy was the nuclear option.

My legislation gives the gorilla teeth to create more opportunities for intermediate fines for civil rights violations and gives survivors a new private right of action under Clery to hold their schools accountable when they have failed them.

Our colleges and universities are renowned around the world for their innovation and ideals. The Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency on Campus Sexual Violence Act will ensure that they are safe places offering opportunity for all students.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, represents San Mateo County and a portion of San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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