Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act headed for President's signature

Legislation addresses issues raised by Center's campus sexual assault investigation

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The House of Representatives passed federal legislation aimed at combating campus sexual violence on Thursday, including it in a bipartisan renewal of the Violence Against Women Act following months of congressional gridlock. The Senate has already approved the measure, which means passage is virtually assured; President Barack Obama could sign it into law as early as next week.

In a vote of 286 to 138, House members approved a reauthorization of VAWA that incorporates, as Section 304, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, known as Campus SaVE. The final tally came after lawmakers had defeated a Republican-backed amendment that would have omitted the act’s language from VAWA altogether.

Campus SaVE is meant to address problems highlighted in an investigation of campus sexual assault by the Center for Public Integrity. Published in a six-part series starting in 2009, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice” — done in collaboration with National Public Radio — showed that campus judicial proceedings regarding allegations of sexual assault were often confusing, shrouded in secrecy, and marked by lengthy delays. Those who reported sexual assaults encountered a litany of institutional barriers that either assured their silence or left them feeling victimized again. Even students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults often faced little punishment, while their victims’ lives frequently turned upside down.

“The victims’ rights components [of Campus SaVE] were designed around the gaps identified by the Center for Public Integrity’s report,” said Daniel Carter, a long-time victims’ advocate now with the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, who helped draft the original bill. “This would not have been possible without that series.”

The legislation, first filed in the fall of 2010, will expand required campus education programs to include prevention awareness and bystander intervention strategies for students, meant to stop sexual assaults from occurring. The measure aims to improve victim protections by guaranteeing counseling, legal assistance, and medical care on campus, among other accommodations. It also will establish minimum, national standards for all schools to follow in responding to allegations of sexual assault and sexual violence. For instance, the act makes explicit that schools must afford both the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim the same rights — access to advisers, written notifications, as well as appeals processes — during campus disciplinary proceedings.

The VAWA reauthorization passed the Senate on February 12, in a 78 to 22 vote. Following the House action, President Obama said in a statement that the VAWA represents “an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear.”  The president said he “look[s] forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

Campus SaVE will technically take effect one year after the president signs the VAWA reauthorization, but as a practical matter, its effects will first be felt at the start of the 2014-15 school year, when colleges and universities have to release their annual campus-crime reports.

Victim advocates, who have pressed for Campus SaVE’s passage for months, say they are stunned — and delighted — by the sudden passage of the Violence Against Women Act, following weeks of legislative stalemate. Many of them were walking the halls of Capitol Hill earlier this week, talking with anybody who would listen about the bill’s virtues. On Tuesday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, re-introduced Campus SaVE on the House side. That same day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference about the Senate version of the VAWA reauthorization, urging House members pass that legislation in its existing form —and that’s what happened.

Laura Dunn, whose case was featured in the Center series, spoke at the Pelosi event about her experiences in 2005, detailing how her allegations of rape by a crew member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took the university nine months to investigate, before deciding against filing disciplinary charges against her alleged attacker. “I requested House members please pass VAWA,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen in a couple days.”

Dunn and other advocates say Campus SaVE will improve the lives of student victims, providing a smoother process for them to report allegations and to appeal. They applaud its requirements for schools to publicly disclose incidents of sexual assault on campus, as well as to publish policies on sexual assault. The legislation will also codify some crucial components of the Education Department’s first-ever federal guidance on how schools must respond to student complaints of campus rape, issued in April 2011.

“This gives me a lot of hope things will change,” Dunn adds.

Lawmakers also hailed its passage. In a brief statement, Maloney, the bill’s House sponsor, said, the legislation “will help students, administrators and the public.” She noted that college administrators will now benefit from guidance on best practices from the departments of Justice and Education, while the public will benefit from the disclosure of incidents of sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence on college campuses.

Her Senate counterpart, Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Casey, Jr., said Campus SaVE will help “ensure that college campuses are safe and secure places to learn and work.”

The measure’s passage comes just one month after news that current and former students at the University of North Carolina have urged the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate the university. The group, including Melinda Manning — the school’s former assistant dean of students and an alum — filed a complaint with the civil-rights office in January, alleging the university has violated the rights of assault victims and created a “hostile environment” for them on campus. The complaint also accuses officials of pressuring Manning to under-report sexual assault cases. One of the students, Landen Gambill, whose allegations of rape by another student were dismissed by a student-run judicial board last year, now faces disciplinary charges herself for speaking out about her case.

The UNC case has quickly made headlines, prompting the school to create a website, “Campus Conversation on Sexual Assault,” where it has posted its policies on the topic. In response to the 2011 federal guidance, the university has rewritten its procedures for campus rape probes since Gambill’s case last year. Today, it no longer allows its student-run disciplinary board to decide such allegations.

In a statement, the university denied the current disciplinary charges against Gambill represent any retaliation for filing the civil-rights complaint. The school, it said, has never tried to discipline a student for reporting sexual violence.

“This University works hard to encourage students to come forward and report instances of sexual violence,” the school said. “We are committed to eliminating sexual assault and violence from our community.”

“We need to recognize there is quite a large battle ahead,” said Dunn, referring to the UNC case. “But this is a great first step, and we should take a moment to celebrate it.”