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Tue, August 26, 2014

Commentary: College Sexual Assault

Injustice 101: Denying Sexual Assault is a Serious Crime by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

Heading off to college triggers a range of emotions for students and their families.  For those moving to campus, lugging boxes from the parking lot to the dorm adds to the knot of anxiety that won’t seem to go away.  And for every student, turning the page on life’s next chapter elicits a mix of pride, excitement and uncertainty.

Incoming freshmen may worry about meeting and making new friends, finding their way around campus, keeping up with studies, and struggling with homesickness and new beginnings.

It’s not an easy transition for parents, either, no matter if campus is across town or a day’s travel away.  Parents naturally worry about their children but understandably expect that they’re sending their college-age children into a safe environment.

As the first weeks of college get under way, students will get caught up in the excitement of their home-away-from-home and the newly found freedoms it brings.  College life offers so many enriching opportunities for students to build relationships and lay the foundation for their futures.

Personal safety may not rank among the highest of priorities when new friends head off to socialize around athletics and the many other activities and programs of college life.

But when the unthinkable happens, victims have a right to know that they will be treated with respect, and sexual assault will be treated like the crime it is, not swept under the rug or treated like a charge of plagiarism or cheating on a test.  The best prevention is the deterrent effect of swift but fair punishment of perpetrators.

Underreported or unreported rapes that occur on college campuses are part of the problem.  That sweeps an ugly reality under the rug.  It’s time for a reality check that takes fairly into account the rights of victims, while assuring due process for the accused.  The stigma attached to rape has discouraged victims from reporting sexual crimes in communities and institutions of American society, including the U.S. military.

Like so many areas of wrongdoing, transparency is key to shedding light on the issue. Improving reporting tools will help bring this issue out of the shadows so universities can work to build a safer environment.  This summer I joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce federal legislation that would hold colleges accountable for responding to sexual violence, including measures to improve reporting, counseling and prevention.

Our bill would require colleges and universities to conduct anonymous surveys, polling students about sexual misconduct on campus.  Results would be published online.  Prospective students and parents would be able to factor in these surveys during their college search.  Transparency is a remarkable disinfectant to help root out wrongdoing.

The bill also would put teeth in the law that requires colleges and universities to report campus crimes, including financial penalties for noncompliance.  It would require confidential advisors for students to call upon for counseling or to report a sexual assault.  On-campus advocates would help vulnerable young men and women get through the difficulty, doubt and uncertainty.  It also would set the standard that sexual assault is a crime and ensure that colleges inform students that it will be treated as such, including full cooperation with local law enforcement when the victim chooses that path.

Many colleges are taking steps to address sexual violence.  For those that need incentives to do more, our bipartisan legislation would spell out the consequences in federal statute.

Our institutions of higher learning ought to implement the highest standards of ethical conduct and expectations for respectful, lawful behavior among the nation’s next generation of leaders.

There’s no excuse for flunking the fundamental standards of fairness and justice that every college student deserves.  Denying a problem exists is Injustice 101.

Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, is Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee.

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