Senators push for police involvement in campus sexual assault cases

Schools could lose 1% of operating budget for failure to do so

A group of U.S. senators convened Tuesday to focus on ways to encourage victims of campus sexual assault to have more confidence in the criminal justice system and to examine the responsibilities of law enforcement.

At a partial meeting of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, both senators and panelists emphasized that going to police must be the survivor's choice—but that, all too often, he or she sees the Title IX federal anti-discrimination law as the only option.

"I am concerned that law enforcement is being marginalized when it comes to the crime of campus sexual assault," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), subcommittee chair. "I'm concerned that the specter of flawed law enforcement overshadows the harm of marginalized law enforcement," he added.

Related: Survey reveals how MIT students view sexual harassment and assault

While some victims say they prefer to work with university officials rather than pressing charges, others have alleged that schools are not equipped to adjudicate the cases, or that they have tried to protect their reputations by discouraging victims from involving police.

What does the proposed legislation mean for schools?

About one-third of schools do not require their campus police and security guards to go through training on how to respond to sexual violence reports, according to a survey commissioned by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri).

The hearing was to "help inform" the finalization of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which was introduced in July and requires every higher education institution to form a multilateral agreement with local police indicating common action.

Can colleges follow White House's new sexual assault rules? Some leaders say no.

"It's high time to make sure that a crime is a crime wherever it's committed," says Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), a supporter of the bill.

Schools that do not reach an understanding with local police could lose up to 1% of their operating budgets, although the Department of Education (DOE) could waive the penalty if schools prove they put forth an effort.

Schools cannot work alone

Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney, said survivors are victimized again when directed away from law enforcement. Additionally, he says most victimizers are repeat offenders and therefore a public safety threat. Proving a case against these individuals can be made more difficult by delays in collecting evidence or opening an investigation.

Further complicating the situation, protocols on how to handle sexual assault cases vary between schools and police, says McCaskill, leading to "a complicated thicket" of problems.

Criminal investigations center on prosecution of the guilty, and prevention of future crimes, while Title IX adjudication processes are about the well-being, civil rights, and safety of one student. Additionally, standards of evidence and burdens of proof differ between the two, as do lengths of an investigation.

Related: Harvard faculty push back on sexual misconduct policy, but administrators say it's fair

For those reasons, "campus-based adjudication processes, as they stand now, don't work," says Peg Langhammer, sexual assault coalition Day One executive director.

Recently, national focus has centered on schools mishandling sexual assault cases—from both the point of view of the alleged victims and accused perpetrators.

"Colleges alone are not competent enough to handle the investigation and prosecution of these cases, and nor should they be. There must be integration between the two," says Langhammer.

Not a neat solution

Campus police chiefs agree that opening lines of communication between school and local forces is important, but they caution that this not a solution in itself. Some colleges deal with several agencies, and "there's no guarantee that local law enforcement will even cooperate with a memorandum of understanding," said panelist Kathy Zoner, Cornell University chief of police, adding that some government agencies prohibit such memorandums (New, Inside Higher Ed, 12/10; Hefling, AP/Providence Journal, 12/9; Wilson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/1).

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