Time for Congress to Act on Campus Sexual Assault

One in four.

When we send our daughters and granddaughters to college, those are the odds that they will become victims of sexual assault before they graduate. According to a new campus survey released by the Department of Justice last week, at least one in 14 of our sons and grandsons will be victims of sexual assault as well.

This is an epidemic and a stain upon our nation -- and it is long past time that Congress took action to address it.

Anyone who has seen the ground-breaking film The Hunting Ground knows that we are failing our children and grandchildren. We are failing at the most basic task -- keeping them safe from harm.

When my daughter, Nicole, first showed me the powerful documentary by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering about campus sexual assault, I was shocked. I watched in tears as victim after victim recounted their stories. You could see the trauma and heartbreak in their faces. Even worse, you saw their sorrow and their rage as they were victimized all over again while seeking justice from a system that too often protects the perpetrators of these heinous attacks.

As a former House member who helped lead the fight to pass the original Violence Against Women Act, I knew we had made some progress in our decades-long fight against sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence. But as the heart-rending stories in this film made clear, we have barely made a dent when it comes to the violence that is taking place at colleges and universities across this country.

A survey by the Association of American Universities released this fall -- which included 150,000 students at 27 campuses nationwide -- found that 27 percent of female college seniors reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, ranging from groping to rape. As President Obama said when he created a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, "sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country."

As a lawmaker for nearly four decades, I have always found that we get our best ideas when we listen to the public, when we hear their voices. And the stories of these survivors are too compelling to ignore.

It was these voices that led my colleagues, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill, to introduce the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that would help support survivors while increasing transparency and accountability at schools nationwide.

It was these voices that led me to introduce my own bill, the SOS Campus Act, which would ensure that every campus has a confidential independent advocate to help sexual assault survivors every step of the way - from reporting the assault, to obtaining emergency medical care and counseling.

Last year, I wrote to every school in California asking them to voluntarily implement the bill. I received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with all 33 public universities agreeing to do so. Now, all 10 University of California campuses, and all 23 California State Universities, have an advocate in place to assist sexual assault survivors.

But there is so much more we need to do. After attending the Sundance premiere for The Hunting Ground along with Senator Gillibrand last year, I warned that there would be fallout from this film -- that those on the side of the status quo would fight efforts to bring meaningful change.

We faced the same resistance when we tried to change the system for sexual assault in our military. Let me be clear: much more work needs to be done, but after years of effort, we were able to enact some important reforms to better protect our military men and women from these crimes, and to provide survivors with the support and the resources they need.

For too long, college students have suffered in silence in the face of these attacks, hurt by a culture that encouraged these crimes to be swept under the rug. But now, more and more of these courageous young people are speaking out. They are challenging the status quo. They are demanding justice and they are demanding a change in the culture on campus that has allowed rape and abuse to become commonplace.

These students inspire us to act. If they are willing to go on-camera and share their stories with the world, if they are willing to risk retaliation in the pursuit of justice, the least we can do is put in place policies to support them and to prevent other young people from becoming victims of these brutal crimes.

We cannot turn away from this epidemic any longer. Enough is enough.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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