Senator Claire McCaskill, who is surveying 350 colleges on their sexual-assault policies, said she’s planning to hold hearings later this year when she’ll call victims, administrators and college presidents to testify.
Colleges, their police forces as well as municipal law enforcement should be called on to explain why so few campus sexual-assault and rape cases are prosecuted, McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a former prosecutor, said in a telephone interview.
Students across the U.S. have filed complaints alleging that their universities have violated Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education, by failing to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. Many administrators may be incorrectly telling female students that they’re unlikely to obtain rape convictions in cases where there’s a dispute over whether sex was consensual, McCaskill said.
“I prosecuted a lot of cases where consent was the defense, and there are a lot of ways you can build these cases,” McCaskill said. “It’s rare that you can’t find corroborating evidence if you try.”
The investigation of Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston for sexual assault last year is one where law enforcement officials may have missed opportunities to determine whether sex was consensual, McCaskill said. Newspaper accounts have said that police investigating the case in Tallahassee, Florida, failed to look at video and interview some potential witnesses.
The U.S. Education Department is reviewing the college’s response to the incident. Florida State is one of 40 universities being looked at by the department’s Office for Civil Rights, said Browning Brooks, a spokeswoman for the university. He declined to comment further, citing privacy rules.
David Cornwell, an attorney with Gordon & Rees LLP in Atlanta who’s advising Winston’s family, didn’t return a call seeking comment. Dave Northway, a spokesman for the Tallahassee Police Department, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Sexual-assault cases involving college sports figures may be glossed over by administrators, McCaskill said. She cited a case from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where a female student who committed suicide in 2010 may have been raped by members of the football team months earlier.
An independent report commissioned by the university and performed by an outside law firm found that while the school didn’t break the law, it “acted inconsistently with the Department of Education’s guidance about the requirements of Title IX.”
The university has said it’s reviewing its policies and practices in light of the report.
“There have been many allegations that universities have looked the other way when the perpetrator was a member of an athletic team,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill said she also plans to investigate how some states’ laws interfere with sexual-assault investigations. For example, some states don’t allow universities to share information about sexual assaults with local law enforcement officials, she said.
While the criminal justice system’s handling of sexual assaults needs improvement, students’ rights to educational opportunity under Title IX also need continued attention, said Nancy Cantalupo, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law in Washington. Cantalupo has proposed that schools be required to regularly survey their students to determine how frequently sexual assaults occur and how victims’ needs are met.
The data would be anonymous and give colleges an incentive to work creatively to reduce assaults and respond effectively, said Cantalupo, who said she has discussed her proposal with McCaskill’s staff.
If such data were public, “there’s not a president of a school in the country who’s going to shrug their shoulders and say we’re not going to do anything,” Cantalupo said.
McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, helped bring about sweeping changes in how the military adjudicates alleged sexual assaults after holding hearings in which she grilled leaders of the armed forces. McCaskill said that, working with New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, she will likely hold hearings this summer, following a series of roundtable discussions and work with the Justice and Education departments.
Colleges that violate Title IX are subject to fines and loss of eligibility for federal student grants and loans. McCaskill said that the hearings will be held by the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, of which she is chairman.