In 2020, the Association of American Universities, under the watch of then President Mary Sue Coleman, released a report on the state of sexual assaults on college campuses. Among the “disturbing” statistics cited was that 13% of all students have been victims.
Coleman, now the President at the University of Michigan, called the increasing patterns “vexing” and hoped that the AAU’s work would shine a new spotlight on the increasing problem in higher education. Its efforts and the public outreach of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) have both elevated the conversation and gotten the attention of leaders at the federal level.
This week, a bipartisan group of Senators led by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) to try to stop the violent crimes plaguing the nation’s colleges and universities. They referenced the dour data from that AAU report, which got more than 360,000 student responses.
“Sexual assault is a crime and, like any crime, weak enforcement emboldens perpetrators,” Grassley said. “Our bipartisan, bicameral bill will make data more transparent, provide colleges with needed resources and give students a clear person to report to who can provide confidential advice. This will help ensure perpetrators are brought to justice and survivors have the resources needed to recover from life-altering trauma. By taking these necessary steps, our bill will help deter and prevent sexual assault on college campuses.”
The 89-year-old Grassley has been one of the most dogged and vocal proponents of actions to protect students and institutions from the occurrences of sexual crimes. He introduced a form of CASA eight years ago and he and Gillibrand have been trying to get it through a fickle Congress for three straight terms. On this one, they have a powerful and surprising alliance comprising Republican leaders such as Marco Rubio and fellow Iowan Joni Ernst as well as Democrats Amy Klobuchar, Dianne Feinstein and Mark Warner. New York Republican John Katko and Democrat Carolyn Maloney will be introducing it in the House of Representatives.
“While we’ve made some progress to protect survivors of campus sexual violence with my Campus SaVE Act, which became law in 2013, more work is needed to combat the troublesome persistence of sexual violence on college campuses,” Maloney said. “The Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) would address ambiguities in the law, beef up protections for survivors, and strengthen enforcement for survivors of sexual violence on college campuses. Domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking are horrific crimes that exact a physical and psychological toll on survivors and an entire community. Students should never feel they are unsafe on their campuses and should have access to support services and resources.”
One of the most prominent cases that took years to uncover continues to haunt victims. It involves the athletes who were victimized and sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, a team physician who oversaw their health at USA Gymnastics and who worked at Michigan State University. Grassley led the first hearing on Nassar, who was later found guilty and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. As the Nassar saga and others like the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State have unfolded, it also has led to Grassley to push through a bill to save young players from abuse. With Gillibrand, he helped launch the Speak Out Act to protect those who come forward and report abuse, which has passed the Senate. Now, the two are trying to increase awareness and provide further backing for students with CASA.
“Sexual assault remains an all too common occurrence in colleges and universities across the country, and for far too long there has been a lack of accountability among higher education institutions with varying access to data and resources depending on the institution,” Gillibrand said. “Students are demanding that Congress take this problem seriously.”
The new CASA legislation, if passed, would:
- Require more transparency and reporting under the Clery Act
- Help launch a website that would be simple to use and report for victims, including listing specific Title IX coordinators and officials at institutions
- Build on existing supports at institutions with additional resources for victims
- Streamline how reports and cases are handled
- Increase professional development and training for staff
- Launch a fines system for violations, which would in turn be used to help boost prevention strategies at institutions.