Colleges could soon have new national standards for how they handle reported sexual assaults on their campuses, thanks to a provision in the latest re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act was first introduced in 2010 by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), but now depends on the passage of the Senate version of VAWA, which has incorporated much of its language. It's the most significant reform of policy on how college sexual assaults are handled since the Jeanne Clery Act of 1990 and the Campus Sexual Assault Victim's Bill of Rights of 1992.
The SaVE Act would require that schools provide victims with contact information for legal assistance and for counseling and health services. Officials handling disciplinary proceedings would be required to receive annual trainings, and campus crime reports would be expanded to include reports of stalking and domestic violence.
Currently, American universities are required to take action once a sexual assault is reported and to provide resources for victims, but are not obligated to have a prevention policy. The SaVE Act would require institutions to provide prevention and awareness programs for all incoming students and new employees.
"By going beyond traditional risk reduction alone and covering primary prevention, consent, bystander intervention and reporting options we will begin to change the culture of tolerance for sexual violence and the silence that surrounds it," S. Daniel Carter, formerly director of public policy for Security On Campus, Inc., wrote of the SaVE Act in a blog for The Huffington Post. Security on Campus is one of 29 organizations that has endorsed the SaVE Act. (Carter is now with the VTV Family Outreach Foundation.)
At least 75 instances of sexual assault were reported on college campuses in news articles within the first six weeks of the current academic year, according to a survey of media reports by The Huffington Post. That number reflects only a small percentage of the total instances, as few assaults make it into news reports and only a small percentage of sexual violence victims ever report their attack to school or law enforcement officials. According to a study for the Department of Justice, fewer than 5 percent of sexual assaults in college are reported, and nine out of 10 women know their attacker.
"They are often fellow students from the same social circle which helps to account for why fewer than 5 percent are ever reported to the police," Carter explained. "The greatest threat doesn't lie along a poorly lit walkway; it hides in plain sight in classrooms, residence halls, and student parties."
Survivor advocates like Hannah Brancato of the activist collective FORCE have long argued schools should be teaching men how to treat their partners, rather than only showing women how to try to avoid being raped.
"Instead of having a self-defense class, there should be a class about how to practice good consent," Brancato told HuffPost. "In your college orientation, instead of talking about carrying a rape whistle, they should talk about how to have consent."
The SaVE Act is not without critics. Most notably, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education protested the low burden of proof proposed by earlier versions of the bill, saying it removes safeguards for due process of the accused.
"Given the seriousness of sexual misconduct and the general lack of due process protections afforded students and faculty in campus judicial proceedings, FIRE believes that the fairness, reliability, and integrity of these proceedings is compromised by mandating use of the 'preponderance of the evidence' standard," Will Creeley, FIRE's Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, told HuffPost in an email. "Colleges have a legal and moral obligation to address sexual assault on campus, but securing justice for victims of campus sexual assault does not require the abandonment of due process and fundamental fairness."
The Heritage Foundation has made similar arguments -- about the rights of accused -- against the VAWA bill as a whole.
The Center for Public Integrity reports that after FIRE's lobbying, the mandate for use of the lower standard of evidence was not included in the SaVE Act portion of VAWA.
However, false accusations are rare. According to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, the rate for false reports of rape is estimated at 2 to 8 percent. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has cited DOJ statistics that indicate very few of those accused of rape ever serve time in jail.
"This act is essential since most campuses need to do much more to prevent sexual assault," Holly Kearl, program manager for American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund, wrote on the organization's website. "They need to penalize perpetrators, and they need to do more to help survivors."
This post has been updated to include new comments from Will Creeley of FIRE.