Connecticut advocates lobby Congress to tackle sexual crimes on campus

UConn students  rallied around students last fall who alleged the university mishandled their complaints of being sexually assaulted.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

UConn students rallied around students who alleged the university mishandled their complaints of being sexually assaulted.

Washington –Should the University of Connecticut and other colleges in the state and across the nation be forced to report all incidents of sexual assaults on their campuses to law enforcement authorities?

That’s one of the questions under debate as Congress tackles the thorny issue of sexual violence in the nation’s schools.

Connecticut’s victim advocates are deeply involved in the discussion.

“Some people want vindication in the courts. Some just want an extension on their English papers. Some people just don’t want to see their rapist in the dorm the next day,” said Yale law student Alexandra Brodsky.

Brodsky is a founder of Know Your IX, a web-based campaign that aims to educate students about Title IX, a federal law mandating gender equality on campuses. She and Darcie Folsom, Director of Sexual Violence Prevention & Advocacy at Connecticut College, participated in a roundtable discussion this week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the issue of sexual crimes on college campuses.

Organizers of the roundtable, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are working on legislation that would address the problem. These lawmakers had fought bitterly over legislation aimed at fighting rapes in the military, with McCaskill advocating a more cautious approach – and prevailing.

UConn Student Carolyn Luby with her attorney Gloria Allred outside a federal courthouse in Hartford

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror (File Photo)

UConn Student Carolyn Luby, one of the complainants,  with her attorney Gloria Allred outside a federal courthouse in Hartford

“But we’re all working together on this issue now,” Blumenthal said.

Like Brodsky, Folsom hopes the lawmakers’ new bill would not force all schools to report sexual attacks to law enforcement officials. Some students may not be able to handle the stress of a criminal prosecution or the loss of anonymity a prosecution would bring, Brodsky and Folsom told the lawmakers. They also pointed out that a criminal prosecution could take years, while disciplinary action by the school is much more immediate and could result in quick eviction of an assailant from campus.

“Schools should do whatever is best for the victim at hand,” Brodsky said.

The problem of sexual assaults on campus became an issue at the University of Connecticut last fall after seven current and former students filed Title IX complaints against the school with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint cited UConn’s “deliberate indifference” when students report assaults. UConn denies the charge.

UConn is not the only school to have problems with allegations of rape on campus.

Last month, the Office of Civil Rights released a list of more than 50 institutions, including UConn, under investigation.

Brodsky said the release was a good first step, but the Department of Education doesn’t plan to make the disclosures an annual practice – or do more than disclose the names of schools under investigation.

Brodsky said legislation could require greater disclosure. She also hopes it would change current Title IX law that can strip all federal funds from schools found in violation.

“That’s too blunt a weapon and would hurt all students,” she said.

Blumenthal also said stripping non-compliant school of all federal money is “draconian” and often leads to the decision to mete out no punishment.

He said fining a school may be preferable. “We need a more realistic carrot and stick.”

Folsom said she also hopes Congress will invest  more money in grants that allow schools to set up programs like Green Dot, a violence prevention strategy that has been implemented at Connecticut College with the help of federal money.

Blumenthal said it’s possible a sexual assault bill will be introduced in the Senate before Congress breaks for August recess. The bill will take into consideration information McCaskill sought from 450 colleges and universities, including UConn, about their procedures on dealing with rape and other sexual attacks at the schools. A report based on the surveys will be released next month, McCaskill’s office said.

Blumenthal said he hopes the legislation will win bipartisan support in the Senate and acceptance in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

“This strikes a chord,” Blumenthal said. “Who is going to be against an effective weapon against campus sexual assaults?

The Obama administration isn’t waiting for Congress to act.

Last week, the Department of Education proposed a change to the Clery Act – a law that requires colleges receiving federal funds to report annual crime statistics, including those related to sexual assaults. The proposed new rule would require colleges to also report statistics for incidents of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.

Under the new rule, colleges would be required to adopt the FBI’s more inclusive definition of rape and including gender identity and national origin in categories of bias for hate crimes.

A survey released last week by Chegg, an online learning platform, showed there is a gender bias when it comes to sexual violence on campus, with 43 percent of female students saying their school is not doing enough, whereas 68 percent of male students saying they are doing enough.

But, on the whole, the survey found that students appear to be less concerned about issues of sexual assault and gun violence and more concerned about property crimes, such as having their bikes or laptops stolen.