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Survey: Colleges struggling to combat sex assault

Colleges and universities are not doing enough to fight campus sexual assault, according to a new survey organized by Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Students walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey
People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey on Nov. 16, 2013.

Colleges and universities are not doing enough to fight campus sexual assault, and the results of a survey organized by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri could provide the evidence needed to spur policy changes at schools and in Congress.

“If we’re going to turn the tide on this problem, we’re going to need some policy changes and some institutional changes in terms of how colleges and universities are dealing with this,” McCaskill said Wednesday at a press conference. “There are way too many schools that are failing. Just about every single institution in the country has room for improvement.”

Forty-one percent of the schools surveyed nationally reported that they had not conducted a sexual assault investigation in the past five years. The survey also found that not only are most schools not creating an environment that encourages victims to come forward, some aren’t even following laws that already exist that govern sexual assault prevention and response. More than 10% of schools surveyed don’t have a Title IX coordinator, a position that would oversee compliance with the 1972 law that requires students receive equal educational opportunities regardless of gender.The identities of the 440 institutions surveyed will not be revealed. The report also included information gathered through interviews and three round-table discussions dedicated to different aspects of campus sexual assault prevention and response. At those round tables, school administrators, former students and law enforcement officials spoke about their experiences with reporting, investigating and adjudicating sexual assault allegations in a system that often traumatizes survivors.

McCaskill announced Wednesday that she would be crafting legislation to reform campus sexual assault and safety policies with a bipartisan group of senators, including New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte. McCaskill said she hopes to have the legislation ready when students return to school in the fall.

Despite several high-profile rape cases involving athletes that have led to steady calls for greater accountability, McCaskill's survey found that more than one in five of the surveyed schools give athletic departments authority over investigating sexual assault allegations that involve student athletes. The survey included 440 four-year schools from around the country.

“You cannot expect a department that depends on the physical prowess of a man or woman to be fair, or even have the appearance of being fair,” and if athletics officials are investigating star players, “I think it would scare just about any victim into the shadows,” said McCaskill.

Sexual assault on college campuses has been a problem for schools for years, but it has only recently gained widespread attention, thanks largely to work by student activists and survivors who have filed complaints against their schools and spoken out about mistreatment to highlight how much still needs to be done.

Students who want to report assaults are likely to have a hard time doing so. Barely half of the surveyed schools provide students with a hotline to report assaults, and only 44% make it possible to report online, according to McCaskill's report.

“One of the time-tested ways schools keep that number low are by making it difficult for survivors to report,” Dana Bolger, a founding co-director of Know Your IX, a student-driven campaign against sexual violence, told msnbc in an email.

Higher-education schools are required to disclose how many rapes occur on campus under the Clery Act, a law designed to make it easier to access crime statistics for schools.

“I think this is going to embolden student activists and create more pressure for change on campuses,” Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), told msnbc. “I think it will give students ammunition to get their school to live up to best practices that other schools are implementing.”

Title IX complaints have exploded in recent years, and there are currently 64 schools under investigation by the Department of Education’s civil rights office. The Department of Education has the power to revoke federal funding for schools that violate Title IX, but it has never done so.

In the Senate round tables, and at a Senate committee hearing in June, many stakeholders said that Congress should consider increasing the range of penalties available for schools that violate Title IX.

One of the first major hurdles to holding schools accountable for preventing and fairly responding to sexual assault reports is that there is a shortage of data. A White House task force, appointed by President Obama, issued a report in April recommending that schools start conducting campus climate surveys, and that annual surveys eventually become mandatory. Currently only 16% of schools conduct anonymous campus climate surveys, according to McCaskill's data.

For Bolger, the results of the senator's survey validate the experiences of the men and women who have come forward already, but she also knows that work can’t end with new legislation university policy.

Policy is part of it, “but as we move forward,” Bolger said, “it's important we don't lose sight of the difference between policy and practice. One of the common things we see schools do in response to public pressure is change their policies -- which is a very visible way to perform their concern -- without actually changing their practices in the day to day.”