THE BLOG
01/21/2015 11:51 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Carrying Their Weight: Giving Voice to Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault

Last night at the President's State of the Union Address, I was honored to invite as my guest Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who has inspired us all with her performance art piece "Carry That Weight" in which she carries her mattress everywhere she goes to symbolize the burden she carries every single day as long as her rapist is still on campus.

Emma is one of a growing chorus of student survivor activists who have taken matters into their own hands by telling their stories of assault in order to shine a light on the scourge of sexual assault on our college campuses today. I can't tell you how inspired I have been by Emma and all of her sisters in arms who have made their voices heard and given voice to thousands of other survivors all around the country. This is their movement, and it's my hope that by inviting Emma to the State of the Union, we can further amplify her voice as we work to reform the system that all too often sweeps sexual assaults under the rug.

In 2013 alone, colleges & universities reported over 5,000 forcible sex offenses to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet 41% of schools have not conducted an investigation of a sexual assault complaint in the last five years and only 10-25% of students found "responsible" for sexual assault were permanently kicked off campus.

Under the current system, colleges lack any real incentive to investigate or report violent sexual crimes that occur on their campuses. While Title IX requires all universities receiving federal assistance to end sexual violence and harassment on campus, and the federal Clery Act requires disclosure of crime statistics to the federal government, it's commonplace for universities to under report these statistics. In the past year we've made progress toward flipping the incentives and working to create some real transparency and accountability into the ways that colleges and universities respond to these crimes.

In July of last year, I stood alongside survivors, advocates and a bipartisan coalition of senate supporters including Senators McCaskill, Collins, Blumenthal, Grassley, Warner, Heller, Rubio and Ayotte to announce the introduction of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Our bill, which will be re-introduced this Congress, will compel colleges and universities across the country to finally face this problem head-on, aggressively, with the goal of making safe campuses for America's students a reality.

Under the Campus Accountability And Safety Act:

- underreporting will have stiff fines with real teeth;
- students will have a place to confidentially access the services they deserve;
- survivors will work with advisors who have proper training; and
- high school students across the country will have a new criterion to consider as they sit with their families and decide where to attend college.

In addition, at the federal level, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating nearly 100 colleges and universities for violations of Title IX with respect to campus sexual violence. Of the nearly 100 investigations that are currently pending, 67 were initiated by the OCR last year. 2014 also saw the federal government's launch of https://www.notalone.gov as a resource for survivors.

The fact is, these courageous women and men who, like Emma, are speaking out about their assaults should not have to share the most horrific experiences of their lives publicly in order to get the attention of their schools and their government. That shouldn't be on them. So it's my hope that we in Congress can begin to take on some of that burden and carry some of that weight for them; it's my hope that we can come together to support commonsense bipartisan legislation to begin to address this problem of violence on our college campuses and our society.

I hope you'll join our effort by going to http://offthesidelines.org/issue/campus-sexual-assault to learn more about this issue and make your voice heard in support of the Campus Accountability & Safety Act.