WASHINGTON -- Legislation unveiled Wednesday by a bipartisan coalition of Senators would create tougher penalties for colleges that mishandle sexual assault cases, potentially levying millions of dollars in fines for schools that run afoul of its regulations.
The bill was unveiled at a press conference by co-sponsors Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), along with advocates for sexual assault victims. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) plans to propose sister legislation in the House.
Broken into five main parts, the Senate legislation would require nationwide surveys of students, increase financial penalties for violating existing regulations while introducing new ones, create new roles for victims' advocates on campus and call for more disclosure by the Education Department about investigations it conducts under the gender equity law Title IX.
"We have lived through an era when the victim and survivor was blamed. Those decades and days are done," Blumenthal said. "There is no reason to demean, dismiss, excuse or deny this problem. We are proposing today, in effect, an enforceable Bill of Rights, guarantees to confidential advisers, access to the criminal process, an internal process of discipline that is fair, impartial and professional, with process due to all."
Colleges that don't meet certain requirements of the bill could be fined up to 1 percent of the institution’s operating budget per violation. For a school like Harvard University, which has two colleges currently under investigation and operates on an institution-wide annual budget of $4.2 billion, that could mean millions in penalties. The fines could still add up for smaller schools -- for example, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, an institution under investigation that has an annual budget of $2.5 million, could still potentially face up to $250,000 in fines.
The maximum penalty for violating the Clery Act, an existing two-decades-old campus safety law, would jump from $35,000 to $150,000 per violation.
"It's really clear from this bill that the senators listened to the survivors that they talked to," Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale Law Student and co-founding director of the survivor advocacy group Know Your IX, told The Huffington Post. Brodsky, working with an advocacy group called ED Act Now, has long called for tougher penalties for colleges that botch rape cases.
"It really shows this law is meant to respond to the on-ground experiences of students," she added.
The press conference featured Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, graduates of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who told their story to HuffPost when they filed complaints in January 2013 against their school for mishandling sexual assault cases. The two women have since worked with students nationwide on filing complaints against other institutions, helping lead to a current tally of 72 colleges and universities under investigation for potential violations of Title IX, the existing statute that requires schools to respond to reports of sexual violence.
The senators credited these activists for propelling the issue into the national spotlight.
"No longer will women feel like they have to share their story with the world just to get their schools' attention," Gillibrand said, adding, "We are going to lift the burden of solving this problem from off the shoulders of our survivors and placing it firmly on those of our colleges and universities."
The legislation largely draws on the issues highlighted by advocates and activists against sexual assault -- as well as a recent survey of colleges by McCaskill's staff, which suggested many schools were flouting existing law on these cases.
The bill calls for the Education Department to administer a standard, anonymous survey to students at American universities about their experiences of sexual violence. S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at VTV Family Outreach Foundation, considered it a smart way of alleviating concerns many college administrators have about the surveys, such as anonymity and logistics.
"I do think the way this bill is structured really addresses the concerns [college leaders] raised and addresses the concerns advocates, such as myself, raised about the scientific validity and privacy concerns," Carter told HuffPost.
There also will be new requirements for colleges to disclose to the Education Department information about disciplinary proceedings for sexual assault. Colleges currently are required to disclose how many sexual assault cases have been reported to them; under the bill, they also will be required to disclose how many they investigated.
All colleges would be required to use a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, and the bill would bar athletic departments or other subgroups from handling sexual assault complaints involving their members.
"I do think [the bill] does a tremendous job of advancing the issue forward, by creating a uniform system where everything is the same, where there is no special preference given to someone who can dunk a basketball or throw a ball 80 yards down the field," Rubio said.
The bill also would address something college leaders and assault survivors told HuffPost they were advocating for: It would require schools to enter into memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement regarding their respective protocols for investigating sexual assault cases. If local police refuse to enter into an MOU with an educational institution, their reason must be submitted to the Education Department.
Colleges will have to establish confidential advisers to be the main contacts for victims of sexual assault and to coordinate services and provide guidance; the number of these positions must be in proportion to the number of students on campus. Schools will not be allowed to sanction students who in good faith reveal a violation, such as underage drinking, as they report the assault.
The bill would force the Education Department to continue increasing transparency by publishing the names of all schools with pending investigations, final resolutions and voluntary resolution agreements related to Title IX.
Signaling that they are open to revisions, the senators noted they are ready to work with colleges on the legislation. McCaskill previously told reporters the final package may look different than its initial proposed version.
"I think now, things are laid out very plainly and very explicitly," Wagatwe Wanjuki, a sexual assault survivor who attended Tufts University, told HuffPost. "It's going to be easier to hold schools accountable and harder for them to claim ignorance as an excuse."
From left, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Anna, a survivor of sexual assault, with her mother Susan, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., talk to each other during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 30, 2014, to discuss "Campus Accountability and Safety Act" that is before the Senate. Anna was an 18 year old student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York when she was sexually assaulted by fellow students at a fraternity party, just three weeks into her freshman year. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)