What You Missed from Senator McCaskill’s First Roundtable on Campus Sexual Assault

Senator McCaskill addresses the roundtable
By Talia Cowen

This summer, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is bringing together advocates and experts to discuss campus sexual assault in a series of three roundtable discussions, the third of which will take place on Monday. McCaskill, known for her legislation addressing military sexual assault, is using these roundtables to brainstorm ideas for better and more comprehensive legislation addressing campus sexual assault that she intends to introduce at the end of June. Our recaps of each one will help you skip out on watching the discussions without missing any of the important stuff!

McCaskill’s first roundtable on campus sexual assault, which can be viewed at any time right here, focused primarily on the Clery Act and how it could be improved to reduce assaults and increase reporting. The panelists included Lynn Mahaffie (Senior Director, Department of Education), Tracey Vitchers (Coordinator, Students Active for Ending Rape), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Laura Dunn (Founder and Executive Director, SurvJustice and survivor), Caroline Fultz-Carver (Associate Officer University of South Florida at Tampa), Eric Heath (Police Chief, George Mason University), Alison Kiss (Executive Director, Clery Center for Security on Campus), and Holly Rider-Milkovic(Director, University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center).

Senator McCaskill addresses the roundtable

What Is The Clery Act?

The Clery Act stipulates that colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid must report crimes that occur on or near their campuses, and it‘s one of the main ways that campus sexual assault statistics are collected. Clery data, however, is notoriously inaccurate, due both to compliance failures by individual universities and endemic underreporting of sexual assault on campuses. (According to a National Institute of Justice’s 2007 report, only 2%-13% of survivors report their assault to law enforcement authorities.)

Why Isn’t It Working?

There are perverse incentives for university administrators to keep their Clery numbers low, namely that reporting crimes in excess makes for bad publicity. This is a dangerous cycle: since Clery is one of the only ways to evaluate the “safety” of colleges, prospective students who factor the data into their decision will use the data as a metric, not knowing that colleges with higher reported crime rates could actually be more safe because they could be the colleges that aren’t suppressing survivors’ reports.

The roundtable discussion centered around improving Clery in order to clarify and increase accessibility of its findings. Formatting errors aside, the Clery data can be very confusing to navigate, since schools have different standards and definitions that they adhere to (particularly for words like consent). It is certainly not consumer-friendly data. Because of blatant inconsistencies—like some schools not properly counting assaults that happen physically off-campus in fraternities—the kind of comparisons that the data was intended to be used for are essentially impossible to do with any semblance of accuracy. On top of that, few know how to access the raw data or what it means, particularly because the data is not and provides no context for crimes reported.

What Can Legislators and Campuses Do?

Admittedly, there is no panacea or quick-fix for Clery data, but the roundtable participants did agree that more substantial penalties for noncompliance need to be created and enforced. (The current the punishment for violation $35,000, which is a drop in the bucket for most universities, and the “big stick” of suspension from federal financial aid programs is largely unused.) Aside from a heftier fine, the participants suggested creating more university oversight for compliance and instituting models and checklists for universities to follow in order to avoid punishment. Senator McCaskill was concerned, though, that colleges would use these to just “check the box,” and that colleges and universities would simply do what was required rather than seek out innovative or research-based solutions.

Although Clery needs attention and improvement, it’s truly an invaluable resource for students looking to hold their schools accountable for failing to act on sexually violent crimes.  However, in order to continue to combat sexual assault, there needs to be continuous reexamination of current practices and norms to ensure they are still relevant, practical, steadfast, and, of course, that they support and empower survivors. Senator McCaskill’s efforts to reform legislation around campus sexual assault are a necessary and long overdue step in the right direction, and by addressing these issues she can help prospective students make informed decisions about their safety and empower survivors by instituting systems that works with them instead of against them on their campus. The goal of Clery is clear, but it needs to be re-clarified; colleges and universities need to do all they can to prevent, respond to, and report campus sexual assault.

Watch the entire roundtable here, and be sure to check out our recaps of the second and third roundtables! 

By Talia Cowen

Talia is a rising junior at Bowdoin College majoring in Government and Legal studies. She is a summer intern at the FMF office in Washington, D.C. working on the Government Relations, Global Health and Rights, and Media and Press teams.

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