Gillibrand pushing for federal campus assault bill; praises NY’s new policy

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To mark sexual assault and awareness month, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand D-Brunswick, is urging Congress to pass legislation that would ensure cases of sexual assault on college campuses are handled properly and that students are provided support following these situations. This legislation is known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (S.590) and would provide colleges and universities with incentives to solve the problem of sexual assault on their campuses. Gillibrand is one of the 15 original co-sponsors of this bill.

This act would create a confidential campus advisor with whom students can discuss their case. It would also allow students to get their schedule or dorm room changed, to avoid further potential contact with their aggressor and implement a uniform student disciplinary process through the U.S. Department of Education, which would create a certification process for different training programs across campuses.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2014, college campuses reported more than 6,700 forcible sex offenses, which include rape and sexual battery.  However, a recent Department of Justice Study estimates the actual number of offenses to be four times that number, because cases often go unreported. Gillibrand says colleges must work to create an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward to report sexual assault.

“Schools are so quick to kick a student out for cheating on a test [but] where is the urgency for sexual assault,” asked the senator.

Gillibrand blames the lack of intervention by some campuses on the fear that application numbers will drop if the word gets out about the high prevalence of these incidents.  She also says that often times college athletes get a “special process” following accusations and that she firmly believes “everyone has to have the same process no matter what.”

The Department of Justice Study indicates that 80 percent of rape and sexual assault incidents against female students ages 18 to 24 go unreported to the police, law enforcement officials at 30 percent of colleges and universities receive no training on how to respond to reports of sexual violence.  In addition, a majority of cases are not instances of “stranger rape,” 78 percent of campus sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows.

Gillibrand praised the State University of New York and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for adopting a policy to combat sexual assault on colleges campuses in New York. She said they have “done a lot” to promote awareness of sexual assault and to intervene in such cases.  In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the “Enough is Enough” legislation. The rules adopted under that bill require that all colleges adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, a statewide amnesty policy and expanded access to law enforcement.  It is considered the most aggressive policy of its kind nationwide.

In January of this year, Cuomo announced a bystander training program, which involves using existing research pertaining to sexual violence prevention on college campuses to teach bystanders how to intervene safely following an incident of sexual abuse, relationship violence, or stalking.

“We have to make sure there’s a plan in place, so that when a survivor wants to go to law enforcement, she knows who to call,” said the senator.

As of July 2015, the bill has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.