After working to reduce problems with sexual assault in the military, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is turning her attention to the same issue at the nation’s colleges and universities.
Both settings, she said Thursday, have ways they are alike in how such cases are treated.
“People feel they’re under the microscope,” she told reporters after sitting in on a training session for personnel at Saint Louis University. “They feel that if they come forward, not only could there be repercussions in terms of their being challenged, but how they’re viewed by their colleagues and peers on campus or on base.
“There were so many similarities that I realized all of the problems we were addressing in the military system, we needed to take a look at all of those issues on college campuses.”
Issues of sexual assault on campus have drawn increased attention at the University of Missouri because of the case of Sasha Menu Courey. The one-time swimmer on the Columbia campus committed suicide in 2011; it later surfaced that she had said she was raped, possibly by a football player, more than a year before she took her life.
Tim Wolfe, president of the four-campus university system, has moved aggressively to make sure that the proper procedures and attitudes are in place so that students feel comfortable reporting such incidents. A recent report commissioned by the Board of Curators said the university may not have done anything illegal, but it did not have the mechanisms in place that federal law calls for.
McCaskill, who cited her experience both as a prosecutor and as an auditor, said that under federal Title IX, colleges and universities need to have a process in place that makes it easy for students to report any problems and be confident that the school will follow through, thoroughly and with sensitivity.
She has sent a lengthy survey to schools asking about their personnel and procedures in such cases. Answers will be confidential, she said, so she is confident that it will be accurate.
“This is about good data,” she said. “This is not about 'gotcha'. None of these universities is going to be exposed for any of the information they give us. So the good, the bad and the ugly is only going to allow us to make better decisions. It’s not going to call anybody out.”
After getting the information back, she said, laws may have to be strengthened to make sure the goals of Title IX are met.
“It’s complex,” McCaskill said, “and that’s why it’s really important that we don’t shoot from the hip on this subject. You could come up with some provision that you want to change the law about and get a lot of attention around it, and frankly that’s probably not going to change much.”
The problems, she added, are varied, involving schools, communities and the students themselves.
“One of the big challenges,” she said, “is jurisdiction, the conflict between university policy departments and municipal police departments. The fact is that most of these cases are not stranger cases. The defense in these cases is consent. So you have the issue of incapacitation with alcohol. You have the issue of self-doubt with victims.
“So a lot of it is making sure that victims get to the right place, get the right information and the right support services, and then that there is a seamless communication between law enforcement and public safety on campus and law enforcement and public safety that’s responsible for prosecutions.”
Among the student body, McCaskill said, changes also are needed.
“A lot of this is educating young women, and young men, about what the crime is,” she said, and that just because they maybe had bad judgment about how much they drank, that doesn’t mean somebody can commit a felony. That’s not a free pass.”
Once that hurdle is overcome, McCaskill said, anyone who wants to press a claim needs to be able to navigate the system easily.
“It really comes back to the basic notion of do victims know where they can go, do they know where they can get good information and are they getting the support they need to encourage them to come out of the shadows and hold their perpetrators accountable,” she said.
Too much whack-a-mole
When college athletes are involved, she added, the issue takes on a whole new dimension.
“There’s no question that there have been some ugly episodes around protecting athletes at some universities around the country,” she said. “But I think it’s more likely that most universities are hampered by frankly not taking all of this as seriously as they should, in terms of reporting.
“And there are problems with the collision of state laws and federal laws that sometimes conflict with one another. You might have a state law that says you can’t share that information, and then you have a federal law that requires that you share that information. So sorting all that out is what we’re trying to do. Can we do the structure of laws and regulations in a way that will help universities do a better job.”
McCaskill said she thinks schools are generally sincere in trying to address the problem.
“I don’t think there’s really any competent university that wants to sweep this problem under the rug,” she said. “Because in the long run, when you do that, the problem just gets bigger. Kids on campus know, and their families know. So you don’t really hide it. All you do is wait for it to break out in a very ugly way that reflects poorly on the institution.”
Asked whether harsher penalties are needed, perhaps in terms of money, McCaskill said any sanctions have to be realistic.
“I don’t think when you threaten a university that you’re going to take away all of their student loan funding, that is taken very seriously,” she said. “Because you’re not going to punish thousands of innocent students by taking away their student loans because the university mishandled something or because there was a case that wasn’t reported accurately.”
And, she added, the issue has to be addressed on a more coordinated basis, not piecemeal.
“The way they’re doing this now is a little bit like whack-a-mole,” McCaskill said, “where the resources at the Department of Justice and the Department of Education are limited enough that they’ll go to one university and get a result, and then they’ll go to another university and get a result. Meanwhile, there’s this undercurrent at lots of universities where they don’t even have a Title IX officer identified.”
Underlying everything, she emphasized, is the need for victims to know they will be taken seriously and for schools to make sure the structure is in place to make victims feel heard.
“There’s no question,” McCaskill said, “that one of the biggest hurdles we have is making sure that young women and young men who come to college campuses understand what rape really is, and when they have been raped. There’s this notion that I don’t want anything to happen, I just don’t want to ever have to see him again.
“Very rarely does someone rape only one time. For every victim who decides to keep it a secret, there’s probably going to be another victim that’s going to keep it a secret. That may go on for a long time until someone has the courage to step out of the shadows. What my work is is to try to make sure we give them every tool possible to give them the confidence to step out of the shadows.”