If a new bipartisan bill is enacted, the public may learn of even more colleges and universities facing federal scrutiny for possibly underreporting sex crimes on campus.
Late Wednesday, after lawmakers debuted two pieces of legislation intended to combat college sexual violence, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.) introduced a third bill, the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency Act.
Nicknamed the HALT Act, the bill includes several components similar to those found in the other proposals, such as requiring schools to conduct annual climate surveys, increasing the penalties for offenders who violate existing campus safety laws, and establishing more requirements for colleges to notify students of their rights under the gender equity statute Title IX.
The HALT Act would also put greater pressure on the Education Department with regard to its investigations of colleges suspected of violating the law. Speier and Meehan's bill would require the department to publish a list of institutions under investigation for possible violations of the Clery Act, a campus safety law -- something the department currently does not do.
Right now, two separate offices within the Department of Education, answering to two different supervisors, handle campus sex assault investigations. One is the Office for Civil Rights, which handles Title IX inquiries and recently started disclosing the names of the schools it is reviewing. The other is the Federal Student Aid office, which oversees investigations under the Clery Act and does not publicize anything about its activities until a financial penalty has been issued.
Advocates and sexual assault survivors are frustrated they can't even get the Education Department to acknowledge if there's a list of universities being reviewed for Clery violations. There is no statute preventing such disclosure, but there is no law requiring it either.
"I don't understand how disclosing Title IX investigations is in any way different than disclosing the Clery Act investigations in terms of it affecting the process," said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation. "If it's not a problem with Title IX investigations, it shouldn't be a problem for Clery investigations."
Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman at the Department of Education, told The Huffington Post that the FSA does not divulge the names of the schools under review in order to preserve the integrity of the investigations.
"The Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) has a longstanding policy of not publicly disclosing the names of schools it is reviewing under the Clery Act," Nolt wrote in an email. "If a school publicly announces it first, FSA will confirm."
Under the HALT Act, the Education Department would get upward of $5 million in additional funding for investigations, as well as a task force to increase coordination among the agencies within the department handling these cases.
Like the other bills introduced Wednesday, the HALT Act raises the possibility of fining colleges that violate Title IX. But Speier and Meehan's legislation does not stipulate how much a school could be fined. By contrast, one of the other bills introduced Wednesday stipulates that schools would be fined up to 1 percent of an institution's operating budget per Title IX violation.
Sexual assault survivors, especially those filing the current wave of complaints accusing schools of botching rape cases, say they're tired of not knowing whether the arm of the Education Department with the power to fine colleges is even conducting investigations.
Early on in what would become a flurry of survivor activism, it was confirmed in early 2013 that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Occidental College were both facing Clery reviews. But when nine students filed a Clery complaint against the University of California, Berkeley in May 2013, they never heard anything back from the Education Department. This February, when 31 current and former Berkeley students filed a Title IX complaint on many of the same issues, the original group of nine students faulted the federal government for not taking action on their earlier filing.
Lead complainant Sofie Karasek, a junior at Berkeley, accused the Education Department at the time of being guilty of the same "deliberate indifference" as her school.
"It is unacceptable that as we wait for the federal government to respond to our complaint, more students are being sexually assaulted, and continue to have their cases dismissed, mishandled and ignored if they choose to report them," Karasek said.
Know Your IX, a survivor advocacy group that has worked with Karasek, said in a statement Thursday that the HALT Act would be needed to codify "openness" and "ensure continued transparency in future administrations."