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Senators continue campus rape fight in wake of Rolling Stone

Despite questions about a recent Rolling Stone report on the University of Virginia, Senators say the problem is bigger than one story.

Democratic senators said Tuesday that just because the reporting of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia in Rolling Stone was flawed, doesn't mean they have to abandon the fight to improve the system. 

"I refuse to let this story become an excuse for Congress not to fix a broken system," said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing on campus sexual assault. 

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And Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was "saddened and angry about the bad journalism in the Rolling Stone, concerning an alleged gang rape," but that "our problem is not victims coming forward and embellishing," but rather underreporting. 

McCaskill and Gillibrand were on opposite sides of a debate over whether to take military sexual assault out of the chain of command. (McCaskill sided with military brass in keeping their control over the process.) But the two have teamed up on a Campus Safety and Accountability Act, introduced in July. 

"We are united in this effort," acknowledged McCaskill, "a force to be reckoned with."

Currently, the federal government has leverage over universities through Title IX, and can withdraw federal funding from any university not in compliance. But that's never actually happened, though many universities have been investigated for lack of compliance. McCaskill and Gillibrand's bill would impose a fine of as high as 1% of a college's operating budget. The bill would also require universities to conduct "climate studies" on how students feel they are preventing and responding to sexual assault. 

RELATED: UVA suitemate: Rape story ‘is not a hoax’

Much of the hearing focused on the difficulty of reconciling the university system and the criminal justice system, and in particular why victims are reluctant to go to law enforcement. 

"The criminal justice system has been very bad, in fact worse than the military and worse than college campuses, in terms of supporting victims" and pursuing perpetrators, said McCaskill. She said advocacy groups' default position had become to go to the university instead of to law enforcement. 

Gillibrand said, "Our goal should be that 100% of survivors of campus assault feel comfortable and confident reporting to law enforcement so alleged assailants are held accountable through due process." But instead, she said, victims are met with "victim-blaming and belittlement. As a result, survivors have lost trust."