McCaskill Sees Stiffer Fines for Campus Sexual Assaults

Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat preparing legislation to push colleges to go further in dealing with sexual assaults, said higher fines may be in order for schools that violate federal rules.

Maximum fines of $35,000 per violation aren’t enough to get wealthy universities’ attention on the matter, and threats of the loss of federal funding are so harsh that they’re unlikely to be imposed, McCaskill said in a roundtable discussion yesterday with victims’ rights advocates, along with campus safety and U.S. Education Department officials.

Rising federal complaints from students at universities across the U.S. and a task force report from the Obama administration have fueled concern about how colleges are handling the issue. McCaskill said she’s working with Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on more appropriate penalties for schools that fail to meet U.S. standards for campus safety.

“We’re going to address the penalties, how realistic the penalties are, and whether there needs to be something other than the complete removal of federal funds, which is unrealistic,” McCaskill said in answer to reporters’ questions after the roundtable in Washington.

The Education Department is investigating at least 55 colleges to see whether they have violated Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education and can be breached when schools fail to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. Colleges are also bound by the Clery Act, which requires them to report violence on campus, including sexual harassment and assaults.

Doubling Investigators

The education agency plans to double the number of investigators of Clery Act compliance over the next few years, Lynn Mahaffie, director of policy for the Office of Postsecondary Education, said in the roundtable.

McCaskill said she may propose reducing, rather than eliminating, government support to schools that violate rules. Increased fines could be particularly useful if they were directed to funding support services for rape victims or enforcement of government rules, said Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, which advocates for sexual assault survivors’ rights.

“You could put it to anything that would help survivors and I’d be happy,” she said in an interview yesterday.

The lawmakers are discussing how schools that break the rules might be punished according to their size, wealth and receipt of government funds, McCaskill said.

Psychological Trauma

At the roundtable, she also discussed how to get more assaults prosecuted by law enforcement officials, how assault data should be publicized, and whether more school officials should be mandated to report incidents of sexual misconduct.

Victims’ advocates at the roundtable cautioned against new laws that would force sexual assault survivors to report crimes to the police, citing the psychological trauma that such investigations can cause.

McCaskill, a former prosecutor, has sent out surveys to hundreds of schools on their sexual assault policies and practices, and plans to hold two more roundtables before filing legislation. She has also said she plans to hold congressional hearings on the issue.

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