On Anniversary of Violence Against Women Act Reforms, Senators Call on Administration to Hold Colleges & Universities Accountable for Underreporting Sexual Violence on Campus

New campus safety data suggests substantial underreporting of sexual violence by schools: out of 11,600 measured in 2014, 91% reported having no incidents

 

Led by Senator Murray, 31 Senators urge Departments of Education and Justice to ensure compliance with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reforms to the Clery Act, which require higher ed institutions to document and report gender-based violence

 

Senators: “Educational equity for women and all students requires fair, responsive, fully developed campus sexual assault policies, knowledgeable administrators, with the shared goal of ending sexual violence on campuses”

 

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, along with 30 Senators, sent a letter to the Departments of Education and Justice urging the agencies to ensure colleges and universities receiving federal funds adhere to new measures intended to help prevent sexual violence on campus and increase accountability for students’ safety. These regulations, which went into effect July 1st, 2015, were included in the Violence Against Woman Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) as amendments to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act), a key campus safety law. VAWA also required that schools focus on prevention of these crimes, instituting education and training programs for faculty and students, and provide students with clear information about their rights under the law.

 

A review of federal campus safety data from more than 11,600 colleges and universities shows that 91% of the schools reported no incidents of campus sexual violence in 2014. The reporting directly conflicts with data on sexual violence from the Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shows one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, strongly suggesting these institutions are not creating an environment where students feel comfortable reporting and vastly underreporting these crimes.

 

The Senators are requesting that the Departments evaluate how colleges and universities are falling short in complying with the VAWA reforms to the Clery Act, reinforce their obligation to students under the law, and clarify what steps these institutions can take to prevent gender-based violence on campus.

 

“July 1st, 2016 marks one year since these reforms went into effect, and while the Administration has taken strong steps to implement these regulations, we are frankly concerned that schools are not doing enough,” wrote the Senators. “Failure to fully adhere to these reforms puts women, and all students, nationwide at risk—and the Departments of Education and Justice have a critical role to play in ensuring the protections laid out in VAWA are fully put into practice…To that end, we request that you evaluate how schools are complying with these reforms and clarify what steps can be taken by schools to prevent gender-based violence on their campuses.”

 

The list of Senators also signing today’s letter include: Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

 

Full text of the letter:

 

July 1, 2016

 

The Honorable John B. King, Jr.

Secretary

U. S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20202

 

The Honorable Loretta Lynch

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20530

 

Dear Secretary King and Attorney General Lynch:

Gender-based violence including sexual assault on our college and university campuses is a serious and growing public health epidemic, and threatens the ability of students across the nation to learn in a safe environment. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), one in five female undergraduates have been sexually assaulted while in college. Several other surveys support this finding, including a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. On college campuses, sexual violence disproportionately affects women and impedes their ability to participate fully in campus life. Educational equity for women and all students requires fair, responsive, fully developed campus sexual assault policies, knowledgeable administrators, with the shared goal of ending sexual violence on campuses.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA) amended the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act) in response to growing concerns about sexual violence on college campuses. These changes require eligible institutions of higher education to take proactive, robust, and preventive measures to make campuses safer and hold schools accountable. July 1st, 2016 marks one year since these regulations went into effect, and while the Administration has taken strong steps to implement these regulations, we are frankly concerned that schools are not doing enough. Failure to fully adhere to these reforms puts women, and all students, nationwide at risk—and the Departments of Education and Justice have a critical role to play in ensuring the protections laid out in VAWA are fully put into practice. 

The VAWA reforms, in part, required colleges and universities to include the number of incidents of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking as part of the required reporting of crime statistics to the Department of Education (ED). Unfortunately, this new data showed that in 2014, while nearly 11,600 schools reported, only nearly nine percent reported any occurrences of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking and nearly 91 percent reported having no incidents of sexual assault. Further, 91 percent of schools reported no incidents of domestic violence or dating violence. These directly conflict with the DOJ and CDC data on sexual assault, and strongly suggest that schools are either not taking the reporting obligation seriously or are not creating an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward to report, and are vastly underreporting these crimes. This discrepancy demonstrates the need for the Department of Education to reinforce schools’ obligation and to examine where schools are falling short in creating trusted systems for reporting and documenting and reporting data on gender-based violence, in order to provide targeted technical assistance and support.

Furthermore, recognizing the need to improve schools’ proactive work to prevent these crimes in the first place, the VAWA reforms also focused on increasing student awareness and requiring schools to focus on prevention of gender-based violence. Under the reforms, schools were required to:

  • Detail policies to prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking;
  • Institute procedures that the institution will follow once an incident has been reported;
  • Delineate procedures for survivors to follow when a crime occurs;
  • Provide written notification about existing services and accommodations for survivors;
  • Train officials who investigate a complaint or conduct an administrative proceeding regarding any of these crimes in a manner that protects the safety of survivors and promotes accountability; and
  • Implement primary prevention education programs to promote awareness of crimes, provide ongoing awareness and prevention training for students and faculty. This includes making students aware of the definition of consent in the jurisdiction, safe and positive options for bystander intervention to prevent harm, and information on risk reduction to recognize to warning signs of abusive behavior.

 

Requiring schools to develop and implement prevention strategies is one of the most successful ways to reduce sexual violence in the campus community. Yet, primary prevention is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to reducing rates of gender-based violence. Prevention complements work on risk reduction, accountability through our criminal justice process, and victim services.

As we mark the one-year anniversary of these reforms, we are concerned that a significant number of schools may be out of compliance. To that end, we request that you evaluate how schools are complying with these reforms and clarify what steps can be taken by schools to prevent gender-based violence on their campuses. Specifically, we ask that you:

  • Clarify university obligations under the Clery Act through guidance articulating a clear and final timeline for compliance that addresses schools needing assistance with compliance;
  • Work with schools to provide model training for faculty and staff to ensure that school officials are informed and prepared to respond to violence;
  • Issue a best practices guide that includes model policies for improving campus safety and preventing and responding to these crimes based on evidence-based measures for school action as required under the statute; and
  • Provide oversight review to ensure institutional compliance with reporting obligations under the Clery Act.

 

The Departments of Education and Justice have been strong partners in our joint efforts to make colleges and universities safe and supporting environments for students to learn, and we appreciate everything you have done to ensure safer campuses for all students.  However, we still have more work to do. We look forward to your ongoing partnership in this work and to more progress in the future.

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