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Targeting Sexual Assaults on Campuses -- Starting With the Facts on the Ground

It's just as much a rape to take advantage of a classmate who's incapacitated in a dorm room as it is to assault a stranger at gunpoint. I fear that too many students at our colleges and universities think there's a difference.
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It's just as much a rape to take advantage of a classmate who's incapacitated in a dorm room as it is to assault a stranger at gunpoint.

I fear that too many students at our colleges and universities think there's a difference -- that if they had too much to drink, or hung out with the wrong people at the wrong place, that somehow it's their fault that they were sexually assaulted.

It's not. You don't need to have perfect judgment to be the victim of a sexual assault.

And after the past year saw a focused effort in Congress to address sexual assaults in the U.S. military -- resulting in a host of sweeping reforms to protect and empower victims and hold perpetrators and commanders accountable -- it's becoming clear to me that we may face similar systemic challenges on our college campuses. Challenges such as severe underreporting of assaults, and confusion over where to go for help.

That's why, this week, I launched a survey of hundreds of colleges and universities across the country. This survey is the first congressional inquiry of its kind, and I'm asking for detailed answers on how sexual assaults on campuses are reported, how they're investigated, what resources are available to victims, how students are notified of those services, what kinds of data the schools collect, what security procedures are used, and what relationships the schools have with local law enforcement.

Our survey -- being conducted through my Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight -- is also aimed at helping us gauge the effectiveness of federal oversight and enforcement under federal civil rights law, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, and the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, commonly known as the Clery Act. Title IX prohibits schools that receive federal funds from discrimination on the basis of sex -- including sexual harassment and violence.

These federal laws already require schools to report certain data on these crimes, but there's near-universal agreement that these data are insufficient to truly understand the scope of the problem, and that -- as in all jurisdictions -- the crime of sexual assault is vastly underreported.

The colleges and universities participating in our survey will represent different types of institutions (public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit) and vary in size.

My hope is that it will give us a window into exactly how our colleges and universities today act -- or sometimes, fail to act -- to protect students and bring perpetrators to justice. Just like the challenges we grappled with in confronting sexual assaults in our military, we need to ensure we have a firm grasp on the policies in place, and the reality on the ground, to inform any specific solutions.

We especially need these data, because the scope of the challenge could be staggering:

  • According to the available statistics, 19 percent of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault. Because many crimes aren't reported, though, that number is probably higher.
  • A 2000 Justice Department report estimated that less than 5 percent of victims of rape attending college report their attack.
  • An investigative series from the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 found that in many cases, victims wishing to report sexual assault faced confusion over how to do so, confusion over acceptable standards of conduct and definitions of sexual assault, and a fear of punishment for activities preceding some assaults, such as underage drinking.

The challenges we face in confronting sex crimes on our campuses are likely as varied as the campuses on which they happen. But it's already clear we have a lot of work ahead to tackle the systemic issues at play.

None of our children should be left on their own after being victimized, and our schools must provide the highest level of responsiveness to ensure victims are empowered, and perpetrators are held accountable.

As a former prosecutor, and as a mother of college-age daughters, I'm determined to give a voice to those victims.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, and former Jackson County, Mo. Prosecutor -- where she established the Kansas City region's first unit devoted to combatting domestic and sexual violence

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