After her bill reforming military sexual assault prosecution passed the Senate last month 97-0, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has turned her attention to a new issue.
With the kickoff of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, she turns her gaze to American college campuses. McCaskill requested data last week from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that would detail the specifics of what she called a “disturbing” lack of action on the part of universities regarding on-campus sexual assaults.
"I fear that, like the U.S. military, we're going to find problems on college campuses just as systemic as our troops faced, including very low reporting due to lack of protections and resources," McCaskill said in a release.
McCaskill, a Democrat, led the charge last year with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to curb sexual assaults in the military and expand victim protections. Though the two differed in their precise legislative goals — and only McCaskill’s bill, which preserved commanders’ authority to decide whether or not to prosecute a sexual assault case, went on to pass — they’re now planning a push for more federal funding to investigate campus sex crimes.
“We’re anticipating getting quite a bit of information back from the agencies that we’ll then be able to take a hard look at, examine and figure out what lessons we can draw from them,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said.
McCaskill, he said, will use the requested data to take inventory of universities’ employee training and victim assistance programs.
From there, LaBombard said, McCaskill could sponsor legislation tightening requirements for funding from Title IX, the 1972 amendment that prevents sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds.
“When our young people go on to higher education, it should be an opportunity to learn, grow, pursue their dreams and prepare for their future careers,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “But for one in five young women on campuses across America, the college experience becomes their worst nightmare, as victims of sexual assault.”
And, McCaskill said, that number could be higher than reported. Available data indicates that 19 percent of surveyed undergraduate women have been victims of sexual assault, but that doesn’t include cases where universities fail to provide the resources necessary to report rapes to an investigating authority.
That also doesn’t include unreported statistics, said Zachary Wilson, development director for the Missouri Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Nationally, Wilson said, 95 percent of sexual assaults — and 60 percent of rapes — go unreported each year, according to numbers from the Center for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“But of course, unreported is a very difficult number to really ascertain since they are not reported,” Wilson said.
Still, he said, prevention is key. Wilson cited programs like Green Dot as effective bystander intervention tools that create a mobilized community, which in turn supports victims and doesn’t side with perpetrators.
But sexual assaults are nonetheless unique, LaBombard said. And without strong mechanisms to hold perpetrators and institutions accountable, it’s often more likely that victims will stay in the shadows.