IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Survivors testify at Senate hearing on campus sex assault

Administration officials and student activists testified before a Senate committee Thursday about how to deal with sexual assault on campus.
Emma Sulkowicz, who is speaking out about her experience with sexual assault at Columbia University, in New York, May 1, 2014.
Emma Sulkowicz, who is speaking out about her experience with sexual assault at Columbia University, in New York, May 1, 2014.

Survivors of sexual assault on college campuses pressed members of a Senate committee Thursday to make serious changes to the federal regulations aimed at fighting violence and harassment on campus.

At a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Emily Renda and John Kelly called on lawmakers to both increase the possible penalties the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights can impose on schools that violate federal gender equity standards and increase transparency about which schools around the country are under investigation for mishandling sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Sexual violence has become a major issue in the past year, as students have coordinated to file Title IX and Clery Act complaints after harrowing experiences trying to report incidents of violence. Title IX requires all schools that receive federal funds to ensure that educational opportunities are equal regardless of gender, and the Clery Act requires schools to collect and report information about crimes committed on campus. 

The hearing, chaired by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, was set to look at ways to better deal with sexual assault complaints at colleges and to deal with complaints that schools are failing to create a healthy culture and learning environment.

When Harkin and other senators directed questions to Department of Education officials about the limited enforcement options, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, seemed to suggest that adding more possible penalties would make it harder to enforce current law. Lhamon heads up enforcement of Title IX complaints.

"If we have a lesser tool that would make it harder for colleges and universities to believe, we would use that option," Lhamon said. While schools that are found to have violated Title IX -- by failing to ensure equal opportunities to students regardless of gender -- can be stripped of federal funding, that has never happened.

"A range of sanctions is about getting survivors through the door," Emily Renda, a special intern in the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer, at the University of Virginia, said before the committee. Renda spent much of her time at college working on sexual assault-related activism and worked with a White House task force that investigated campus sexual assault.

The second student to testify addressed one of the biggest blind spots in the push to reduce sexual assault: victims who are not women or are not heterosexual. John Kelly testified about the obstacles LGBT students and and male students face when sexual assault policies and laws are not inclusive. "We should be talking about discrimination queer students face in the same way we talk abut sexual harassment," Kelly said.

When the White House task force on campus sexual assault announced recommendations on April 29 after reviewing federal policies, the press conference focused almost exclusively on women and girls and on male perpetrators.

The Department of Education released a list on May 1 of 55 schools currently under investigation for possible Title IX violations, two days after the task force released its recommendations. The list of schools under investigation should be continuously updated, Kelly said Thursday.

Without updated, easily available information about a school's record on sexual assault, he said, the Department of Education effectively "[denies] students the opportunity to make educated decisions for themselves."

One group of schools not subject to the reporting requirements of the Clery Act, according to testimony from James Moore, manager of the Clery Act Compliance Division in the Education Department, is military academies. Congress passed a host of reforms aimed at reducing sexual assault in the armed forces late last year. Surveys conducted by the Department of Defense have shown that sexual assault in the military, as on campus, is wildly under-reported and under-prosecuted. 

Some of Harkin's fellow senators, including Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.,  have been leading reform efforts. McCaskill held the third of three round-table discussions on the campus sexual assault on Monday. She has also asked 350 schools to complete a survey on how they handle sexual assault.