U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. are upset with two national umbrella organizations for sororities and fraternities for backing legislation the senators say will leave students vulnerable to potentially dangerous individuals on campus. The legislation also would discourage victims from reporting sexual assaults and would keep schools from moving quickly to protect students, the senators say.
McCaskill and Gillibrand are the prime sponsors of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a measure with at least 34 co-sponsors, significant bipartisan support and the backing of numerous national victim advocacy organizations.
On Thursday, the two held a phone conference with reporters from across the U.S. to highlight what they are calling a “misguided” piece of competing legislation. The Safe Campus Act is backed by the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference. It would prevent schools from moving quickly under Title IX to protect students unless a victim has gone to police and until that law enforcement agency’s investigation is completed - a process that can be lengthy.
McCaskill is especially concerned that the competing legislation carves out an exception only “for sexual assaults and not any of the other violent crimes that could occur on campus.” That means a university could take action under Title IX for a woman robbed at gun point, McCaskill said. But if she were raped, the school would be prohibited from acting on its own unless the victim agreed to go to the police. Some victims are hesitant to do so, fearing shame or retribution.
In an emailed reply Friday, to a question from St. Louis Public Radio, NPC executive director, Dani Weatherford disputed the senators' claim that the Safe Campus Act, keeps schools from taking immediate action to protect students. "The act gives schools an unprecedented new interim measure of immediate suspension of accused students who are under law enforcement investigation," Weatherford said.
The key phrase would appear to be "under law enforcement investigation," which is consistent with at least one of the senators' concerns about the competing measure.
The bill does exempt schools from being required to conduct investigations under title IX, as the senators argue: "No institution of higher education which is subject to this part shall be considered to have violated any provision of title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. 1681 et seq.) or any policy or regulation implementing any such provision on the grounds that the institution did not investigate or adjudicate a covered allegation, or did not impose any sanction with respect to a covered allegation, to the extent the institution was prohibited under this section from initiating or carrying out any institutional disciplinary proceeding with respect to the allegation."
Another section of the Safe Campus bill does give schools the ability to "impose interim sanctions against the subject of the allegation..." as long as that sanction is related to the allegation in question, but "only if the institution determines that the imposition of such a sanction is a reasonable measure to promote campus safety and student well-being."
The McCaskill-Gillibrand bill lets victims control how they want their cases to be handled and requires schools to comply with requirements under Title IX to ensure campus safety and the proper treatment of both victims and the accused. That’s not the case in the competing bill, McCaskill said.
McCaskill said she and Gillibrand worked hard to ensure their bill provides due process to anyone who is accused, transparency for the process and training for the colleges in the right way to go about a Title IX investigation and determination.
She says the competing bill is particularly disturbing when you know the difference between what law enforcement is supposed to do in these circumstances and what schools are supposed to do under Title IX to protect students. “The prosecution process is about depriving someone of their liberty, putting them in prison, labeling them as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. The Title IX process is for campus safety and its a much different kind of process and it should be treated differently.”
McCaskill called on the National Panhellenic Conference and the Interfraternity Conference to “look at what they’re doing, and realize they’re really setting back the cause of campus safety in a way that’s unacceptable.”
Gillibrand echoed McCaskill’s concerns that sororities were backing the competing legislation. “Perhaps sororities are not fully aware of the situation, because this will overwhelmingly harm their members and harm the young women they represent, and I cannot imagine they would do so willingly or if they had the proper information. So, I think it is important to call them out on the misinformation now, so that they don’t get too far along in this process.”
Both senators said they had been members of sororities in college and because of that experience and their conversations with students and victims, in crafting their own legislation, they felt the need to let current sorority members know about the competing legislation being supported by their national organization. “It’s incredibly disappointing. I would be furious if I were a member of a sorority and my dues were going toward this effort,” McCaskill said.
They both also expressed confidence that their own bill would be approved in this Congress.
They also told reporters that they had not been contacted by the two organizations prior to the groups' introducing their competing legislation. "I want a dialogue, and frankly I'm a little concerned that there wasn't dialogue before they did this," McCaskill told reporters in the news conference. After the news conference, the senators sent letters to both organizations and at least three fraternities.
The National Panhellenic Conference's Weatherford said in an email: “NPC is in receipt of communication from Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand. We appreciate efforts by lawmakers at the state and federal level to eliminate sexual assault and sexual violence in any setting. NPC’s overall interest is in making sure women’s voices are heard as a part of this on-going conversation. NPC welcomes and appreciates the opportunity to engage with the Senators in the days ahead.”
Friday morning, the two groups sent St. Louis Public Radio an email with a joint statement saying they had received the senators' letters and looked forward to meeting with them in the weeks ahead. The statement also said there are "misconceptions in the Senators' letter" regarding the Safe Campus bill and another piece of legislation.