Congress Offers Creative Solution to College Rape Epidemic

A dozen House members want to hit universities where it hurts — their <em>U.S. News &amp; World Report</em> rankings.

NEW YORK, NY: Protesters stand outside of a Manhattan court as former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexual assault, exits on August 23, 2011 in New York City.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 24, 2014, 11:13 a.m.

This fall, as high school seni­ors pre­pare to ap­ply to col­lege, many will scan the rank­ings provided by U.S. News & World Re­port. They’ll com­pare col­leges’ class sizes, tu­ition prices, the stu­dent-fac­ulty ra­tio, and — po­ten­tially — their sexu­al-as­sault stat­ist­ics. That is, if some mem­bers of Con­gress get their way.

Earli­er this month, a dozen House mem­bers, in­clud­ing two Re­pub­lic­ans, sent a let­ter to U.S. News & World Re­port ask­ing the pub­lish­er to in­clude sexu­al-as­sault and pre­ven­tion data in its ven­er­ated an­nu­al col­lege rank­ings.

Rep. Jack­ie Spei­er, D-Cal­if., who is spear­head­ing the ef­fort, said she be­came in­ter­ested in the is­sue while work­ing to curb sexu­al as­sault in the mil­it­ary. “Of­ten­times the Pentagon brass has come to me and said, ‘Well, our stat­ist­ics are bet­ter than col­lege cam­puses.’ And I thought, well, if that’s the case, then we’ve got an is­sue in both set­tings,” Spei­er said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day.

Those stat­ist­ics on cam­pus sexu­al as­saults shocked Spei­er. Ac­cord­ing to a 2007 fed­er­ally fun­ded study for the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute of Justice, one in five wo­men will be sexu­ally as­saul­ted dur­ing their col­lege ca­reer. For, say, Prin­ceton Uni­versity — the top-rated school on U.S. News & World Re­port‘s 2014 rank­ings, where the av­er­age class size is 20 or few­er stu­dents — that would trans­late to four young wo­men in every classroom.

But it doesn’t stop there. Six per­cent of men are sexu­ally as­saul­ted in col­lege, and more than 70 per­cent of LGBT stu­dents are sexu­ally har­assed dur­ing their col­lege years, Spei­er said. In a re­cent op-ed, Rep. Pat Mee­han, R-Pa., who joined Spei­er in sign­ing the let­ter, also noted that an av­er­age-sized uni­versity with 10,000 stu­dents can ex­pect “as many as 350 rapes per year.”

“I think they’re all stag­ger­ing num­bers. And the is­sue has not been taken ser­i­ously enough,” Spei­er said. “I think when it starts to af­fect your rank­ings on the U.S. News and World Re­port ‘bible,’ as it’s re­ceived by both uni­versit­ies and par­ents eval­u­at­ing col­leges with their kids, then we’ll see things change.”

U.S. News hasn’t com­men­ted on the spe­cif­ics of the let­ter from Spei­er and her col­leagues, but has said pub­licly that it would be will­ing to sit down with the con­gress­wo­man to dis­cuss the is­sue. “We wel­come the op­por­tun­ity to meet with Con­gress­wo­man Spei­er, Con­gress­man Mee­han, and their col­leagues to dis­cuss cam­pus safety, par­tic­u­larly sexu­al as­sault,” spokes­wo­man Lucy Ly­ons said in a state­ment.

Spei­er and her col­leagues are ask­ing the rank­ings pub­lic­a­tions to in­clude not only the num­ber of sexu­al as­saults re­por­ted on col­lege cam­puses — which could un­fairly pre­ju­dice pro­spect­ive stu­dents against uni­versit­ies that have a strong re­cord of re­port­ing rapes — but also to rank schools by how well they pre­vent and re­spond to those as­saults.

Asked wheth­er in­clud­ing these met­rics in the rank­ings could cause col­leges and uni­versit­ies to down­play the is­sue of sexu­al as­sault on their cam­puses, Spei­er replied: “For all in­tents and pur­poses, that’s what’s hap­pen­ing already. And we’re go­ing to re­quire great­er trans­par­ency and great­er ac­count­ab­il­ity.”

The U.S. News push is just one prong of a lar­ger con­gres­sion­al ef­fort to re­duce sexu­al as­saults on col­lege cam­puses. Spei­er is plan­ning to un­veil le­gis­la­tion in the next two weeks to com­bat the is­sue.

That bill will re­quire uni­versit­ies to con­duct an­nu­al “cli­mate sur­veys,” ask­ing their stu­dents an­onym­ously about sexu­al as­sault and re­lated is­sues, the res­ults of which will later be made pub­lic. “You know, of­ten­times sur­viv­ors don’t file claims and don’t re­port for a num­ber of reas­ons that in a sur­vey, they are more likely to choose to speak to re­flect their ex­per­i­ence,” Spei­er said, not­ing that the De­fense De­part­ment has seen great res­ults from sim­il­ar sur­veys with­in the mil­it­ary.

The le­gis­la­tion will also re­quire the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice to as­sess sexu­al-as­sault train­ing for stu­dents and ad­min­is­trat­ors, and would make schools post vic­tims’ rights un­der Title IX — rights that are typ­ic­ally bur­ied on col­lege web­sites, Spei­er says. The bill will also at­tempt to put bet­ter re­sources for vic­tims in place on cam­pus.

Spei­er noted that when she vis­ited the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) dur­ing the con­gres­sion­al re­cess, she learned that the school, known for its lib­er­al polit­ics, does not have rape kits at its cam­pus med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies. Its 36,000 stu­dents would have to travel more than six miles to an­oth­er city to find the nearest pub­lic hos­pit­al that provides the forensic tests. And Berke­ley is hardly alone on that count. Stu­dents at the Uni­versity of North Texas have been up in arms since it was re­vealed late last year that their cam­pus lacks rape kits as well.

Al­though just 12 mem­bers of Con­gress signed on to the let­ter, Spei­er be­lieves that con­gres­sion­al sup­port for both her bill and the U.S. News ini­ti­at­ive runs much deep­er. She did ask col­leagues to add their names to the let­ter just as they were leav­ing town for the two-week East­er re­cess.

As par­ents, Spei­er ex­pects many of her col­leagues to get on board, not­ing that fath­ers in par­tic­u­lar have ap­proached her in her home dis­trict over the past week and a half ur­ging her to con­tin­ue work­ing to pro­tect their daugh­ters. “This has really a great deal of trac­tion among Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans,” Spei­er said.

Mee­han already has a sim­il­ar meas­ure, with a bi­par­tis­an group of five co­spon­sors, that fo­cuses more heav­ily on law en­force­ment.

Over in the Sen­ate, Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., with the sup­port of four oth­er Demo­crats and two Re­pub­lic­ans, offered sim­il­ar pro­pos­als in a let­ter to the White House’s Task Force to Pro­tect Stu­dents from Sexu­al As­sault, which is set to re­lease its re­com­mend­a­tions to curb cam­pus as­saults with­in the next week. Rather than fo­cus­ing on col­lege rat­ings, however, Gil­librand’s group asked that the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment cre­ate a search­able data­base of sexu­al as­sault com­plaints and re­views at vari­ous schools.

Spei­er and her col­leagues may have White House sup­port as well. Spei­er first broached the top­ic with White House staffers, who en­cour­aged her to send the let­ter to U.S. News, but, she cau­tioned, it’s not clear if they speak for the ad­min­is­tra­tion as a whole.

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