Senate panel consider ways to deal with campus sexual assault

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 26, 2014 

— In a hearing Thursday about campus sexual assault, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, promised to include military institutions under the scope of the Clery Act and Title IX, laws that, respectively, require the disclosure of campus crimes and prohibit sex discrimination at educational institutions.

Because schools that train the military now are exempt from Title IX, they aren’t required to report instances of sexual misconduct to the U.S. Department of Education, as is the case for most colleges and universities. For those institutions, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights can withhold federal aid if schools violate Title IX.

At a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Harkin chairs, he proposed that the Civil Rights Office also have the ability to levy fines against colleges found in violation of Title IX. Harkin said terminating federal funding _ which has never happened at the college level for Title IX violations _ wasn’t enough of a deterrent for schools to uphold its provisions. Sixty-four universities are currently under Title IX investigation.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon pushed back against the suggestion, citing a case in which the Civil Rights Office threatened to revoke Tufts University’s federal funding in April after the Medford, Mass., school broke a voluntary agreement with the government over a Title IX complaint. The college subsequently complied with the agreement.

“The importance of the threat of withholding federal funds is something that should not be undermined,” Lhamon said. “There may well be more things that we can do, and I would welcome them to add to the arsenal because I think it’s important that we deliver for all kids.”

In the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, Harkin said he planned to include a provision about campus sexual assault in the 50-year-old law, which is primarily intended to allocate federal student aid.

Previous reauthorizations of the act have never included provisions that change how military institutions are evaluated under the Clery Act and Title IX. Although Harkin said he’d like to include campus sexual assault in the act’s reauthorization, he warned that “one size does not fit all” in legislating how colleges should handle these cases.

“These are not all the same acts,” Harkin said. “They vary in intensity, they vary in approach, they vary in victims, they vary in perpetrators.”

He called on universities to create positions outside the college hierarchy to assist sexual assault victims.

In order to comply with Title IX, colleges already must have coordinators who report cases of campus sexual misconduct.

Cautioning Congress not to claim responsibility for campus safety, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he’d like to speak with the college administrators responsible for adjudicating sexual-assault cases to determine the best course of action.

“I don’t think . . . the United States Senate, that can’t even balance a budget and can’t even agree on how to consider an appropriations bill, ought to be the one who you look to to be responsible for campus safety,” Alexander said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently hosted informal discussions about campus sexual assault and has said she intends to offer legislation intended to help college administrators handle such incidents. The White House in April also weighed in, unveiling a set of guidelines for campus sexual assault, some of which begin to take effect this year.


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