Alexander: Federal Laws, Regulations Should Help Create Campus Environment Safer from Sexual Assault

Says “that also means protecting the due process rights of both the accuser and the accused”

Posted on July 29, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 29 – Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said the committee’s objective, in its work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, is to ensure that any federal law or regulation will help the nation’s 6,000 colleges and universities create a campus environment that makes students safer from sexual assault.

“At first blush, we might think that more laws and regulations will make colleges safer, but that is not always true. Laws that are duplicative or ineffective or create unnecessary paperwork and compliance work actually take away from the time colleges and universities can spend on educating and on helping students stay safe,” Alexander said.

He cautioned that the committee must be careful to:

“First, eliminate duplicative laws and regulations so that instead of spending unnecessary time filling out forms, colleges have more time to counsel students and create a safer environment. Second, help campuses better coordinate with law enforcement agencies, but not turn colleges into law enforcement agencies. And third, establish procedures that are fair and that protect the due process rights of both the accused and the accuser.”

He added: “Our committee’s bipartisan campus safety working group will be looking closely at fairness and due process for both the accuser and the accused. For today’s hearing, we have invited several experts to submit statements for the record on protecting the rights of the accuser and the accused, which is an essential part of our objective to help colleges and universities create safe environments for students on campus.”

Alexander had asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to chair today’s hearing because he had intended to be in Tennessee for a funeral, but returned to the Capitol for votes and was able to attend the hearing. This is the committee’s seventh hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Witnesses at today’s hearing included four senators who were original cosponsors of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act—Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Below are Chairman Alexander’s prepared remarks, which were submitted for the record:

We’re here today to discuss the important issue of combating sexual assault on college campuses – and my goal is to address it in a very specific way:

This committee is in the middle of its work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, so I’d like to focus our discussion this morning on exactly what sort of steps we ought to take in this reauthorization to help colleges keep their students safe.

Our first panel testifying this morning is comprised of four senators who have worked together on legislation to combat campus sexual assault.

Senator McCaskill, Senator Heller, Senator Gillibrand, and Senator Ayotte are four of the original cosponsors of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Senators Blumenthal, Grassley, Warner, and Rubio have also worked with them on this bill.   

They have been dedicated to this issue and shown great care for students and a commitment to keeping them safe – and we are grateful to have them here this morning.

They are here today to talk about their bill in the context of our reauthorization.

Senator Murray and I have been in close touch with these senators and are working with them on addressing this issue in the reauthorization.

Before we begin our conversation on new legislation, I’d like to briefly outline what federal law says now on the issue.

Current law requires colleges and universities to do a lot to prevent and respond to sexual assault.

There are two main laws that colleges and universities have to follow:

  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
  • The Clery Act
    • Provisions in the Clery Act were updated in 2013 by the Violence Against Women Act.

Title IX

Since 1972, Title IX has protected people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

In 2011, the Department of Education issued what it called “first-of-its-kind policy guidance” to explain to institutions that reports of sexual assault on college campuses are covered by Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination.

Then, last year the Department of Education released a 52-point guidance document that answers frequently asked questions about a student’s rights and a school’s obligations under Title IX related to sexual assault, both with regard to prevention and response.

Clery Act

The Clery Act is the primary law that governs campus safety. It requires colleges and universities to report crime statistics and to have many campus security policies to help keep students safe.

Violence Against Women Act

In 2013, Congress updated the Violence Against Women Act, including by adding amendments to the Clery Act. Senator Casey was the lead champion in the Senate of these new updates that focused, in part, on prevention and training to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses.

On the first of this month, 227 pages of regulations went into effect implementing the new Clery Act amendments to ensure that campuses have policies and procedures in place to not only prevent and respond to sexual assault, but also domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

I’m glad Congress has acted to help prevent sexual assault on college campuses.

As a former college president, I know that maintaining a safe environment for students on campus is the number one priority for every college administrator, and I know also that campus sexual assault is the issue that keeps them up at night.

There have been at least 30 conferences or forums hosted by universities around the country in the last 10 months about this issue.

For example, in January, in my home state, 78 Tennessee colleges gathered for two days to talk about sexual assault prevention and response strategies.

And last October, the University of Washington hosted a conference for 55 Washington colleges and universities to talk about those same issues.

Reauthorization

I want to make sure our legislation will actually help the more than 6,000 colleges and universities that are affected by what we do in their efforts to maintain a safe environment.

At first blush, we might think that more laws and regulations will make colleges safer, but that is not always true. Laws that are duplicative or ineffective or create unnecessary paperwork and compliance work actually take away from the time colleges and universities spend on educating and on helping students stay safe.

This is one reason Senators Bennet, Burr, Mikulski, and I commissioned a report to figure out which higher education regulations need to be simplified.

That report discussed how some parts of the Clery Act may not be necessary and are sometimes counterproductive.

For example, the report revealed that in an effort to comply with the Clery Act, a university ended up interfering with a local law enforcement investigation. In fear of being out of compliance, the university sent out what is called a “timely warning” that is intended to warn students of a threat on campus, but it ended up tipping off a potential perpetrator of campus sexual assault that a police investigation was underway.

The Department of Education’s regulations also require what seems to be unnecessary paperwork.  For example, the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to file an annual security report, and in that, include their local jurisdiction’s definition of dating violence, along with definitions of other crimes.  However, some local jurisdictions don’t define dating violence in their criminal code.  Yet, in order to comply with the law, an institution is still required to document that they made a “good faith effort” to research that the term was not defined in the criminal code where the university resides. 

In addition, as a result of the new regulations, the Department expects colleges and universities to have to hire new employees or reassign existing staff from other activities to meet the regulation’s reporting and disclosure requirements.

I’m not sure that is the best use of employees’ time when some research shows that fewer than 25% of students read crime reports mandated by the Clery Act, and less than 10% of parents and students use the crime information to decide on a college.

So I hope that our committee can work together to accomplish the shared goal that federal rules and regulations should be to help our 6,000 colleges and universities create campus environments that make students safer from sexual assault.

In doing that, we should be careful to:

1.    Eliminate duplicative laws and regulations so that colleges do not spend unnecessary time filling out forms and, as a result, have more time to counsel students and create a safer environment;

2.    Help campuses better coordinate with law enforcement agencies, but not turn colleges into law enforcement agencies;

3.    Establish procedures that are fair and that protect the due process rights of both the accused and the accuser.

Sexual assault, whether on campus or off, can devastate lives.

It’s important that when colleges and universities learn of an allegation of sexual assault and students go through the disciplinary process that both parties are treated fairly and afforded the due process rights they deserve. There are some protections in current law, but we have seen examples of both sides feeling like the process was not fair for them so we need to look at if there are additional things we can do to fix that.

I look forward to hearing what today’s witnesses have to say.

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