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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Combating sexual assault on campuses

Every American will need access to some form of higher education in the 21st century. Ensuring this is possible will require lowering costs, expanding options and changing the way students pay for degrees. But these reforms will be of little use if students don’t feel safe on college campuses.

Campus sexual assault is a grave concern for many students and families today, and for good reason. Too many lives are ruined by a failure to deal with these crimes efficiently, fairly and consistently. Thus, to provide a higher education experience that is safe and accessible to all, I have partnered with a bipartisan group of senators to propose legislation combating campus sexual assaults.

Our legislation focuses on three principal goals: empowering victims with the tools they need to achieve justice and begin healing, increasing transparency from colleges and universities, and strengthening accountability for institutions that fail to do their part to provide a safe learning environment.

Since no legislation can totally eliminate sexual violence, our bill begins by recognizing that these occurrences are serious crimes, not mere disciplinary matters. Serious crimes are best pursued by well-trained police forces, not by university personnel. Our bill will require every institution to enter into agreements with local law enforcement agencies so that serious accusations receive the serious consideration they deserve.

While law enforcement are best equipped to handle allegations of criminal behavior, colleges and universities also must meet their responsibilities to empower the public with relevant information. Our legislation requires that every institution post on their website the number of reported assaults, disciplinary proceedings, and referrals to law enforcement that have occurred within the past year.

Any school that offers federal student aid would also be required to participate in a standardized, anonymous online survey of their students that would measure sexual violence and harassment experiences on campus. Like official university data, these findings would be made available online.

This inflow of information would empower students and parents to choose the safest possible learning environment and account for risks. Colleges and universities would also be held to a higher standard of accountability if they fail to meet these reporting requirements.

While the bill does establish several important new requirements for institutions, we are careful to avoid imposing unnecessary costs. Smaller colleges are permitted to pool resources with nearby schools, and institutions will have the option of partnering with nonprofits and victims advocacy organizations. Grants will also be made available from the Department of Justice.

A central aim of our efforts must be to lessen the devastation that assaults have on the lives of victims. By increasing resources available to victims, we can reduce the possibility that any survivor of assault feels compelled to suffer their burden silently. Providing a safe environment for reporting and discussing assault, while also placing authority in the hands of the victim, is crucial to mitigating the lifelong pain caused by these crimes.

To this end, our legislation would require every campus to establish a specified individual to whom victims can speak privately. That person would not report these encounters but would rather educate the victim on all available options, from modifying his or her class schedule to filing a police report.

While sexual assault can all too often ruin the lives of victims, our bill also recognizes that wrongful convictions and accusations can inflict similar devastation. By ensuring better training of university staff and closer partnerships with local law enforcement, we will improve how these cases are investigated and prosecuted and will protect the rights of the accused to due process.

Finally, fair treatment also means ensuring that no students are given special treatment, even if they can throw a ball 80 yards down a field or shoot a basketball from half court. Under our legislation, schools would be prohibited from providing any unique disciplinary treatment to a subgroup of students.

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Of course, no single bill will completely solve the problem of campus sexual assault, and many of the answers must be found in changes to culture rather than in legislation. We cannot begin to make progress, however, until we empower students and families and ensure that every case is treated with the attention, sensitivity, and concern that it deserves. This bill would accomplish these aims. In doing so, I believe it will turn the tide against campus sexual assault.

Sen. Marco Rubio

Correction: The original story referred to Sen. Rubio as a U.S. representative.

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