Recap: What You Missed from Senator McCaskill’s Third Roundtable on Campus Sexual Assault

By Talia Cowen
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captureThis 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!

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On Monday, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) convened the last of three roundtables on campus sexual assault. This final roundtable addressed the criminal justice system and administrative processes for prosecuting cases of sexual assault on college campuses.

Via Shutterstock
Via Shutterstock

Panelists in the roundtable included: Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Katharina Booth (Chief Deputy District Attorney, Boulder County, Colo.), Alexandra Brodsky (Student, Yale University Law School), Nancy Chi Cantalupo (Professor, Georgetown University Law School), Paul Denton (Police Chief, Ohio State University Department of Public Safety), Darcie Folsom (Director, Connecticut College Sexual Violence Prevention and Advocacy), Jennifer Gaffney (Special Victim’s Bureau Deputy Chief, New York County, NY District Attorney’s Office), Carrie Hull (Detective, Ashland, Ore. Police Department), Mike Jungers  (Dean of Students, Missouri State University), Jessica Ladd-Webert (Director, University of Colorado, Boulder, Victim Assistance), Rebecca O’Connor (Vice President, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, Public Policy), Kathy Zoner (Police Chief, Cornell University).

“I have heard again and again how both systems have failed to the point where many survivors have little or no confidence in either the criminal justice system or the administrative process in their own colleges and universities,” said Senator McCaskill in her opening remarks.  Over and over, the news has reported the ways that survivors’ cases have been neglected by their schools and mishandled by law enforcement.  McCaskill’s roundtable sought solutions to these failures, largely by encouraging collaboration, transparency, training, and further research, so that, instead of working against each other, school administrations, campus safety officers, and local law enforcement will work in tandem to assist, support, and empower survivors of campus sexual assault and prosecute perpetrators.

What prevents systems from working well together?

 The administrative and the criminal justice systems approach the issue of campus sexual assault from two disparate perspectives. While a university may focus on a victim’s confidentiality, the criminal justice system may require that a victim testifies at trial in order to have a fair trial. Though both systems have the same goal of achieving justice, jurisdictional issues often preclude certain parties from fulfilling their duties. Additionally, identifying whom to send a victim to immediately after an incident can be unclear. For example, a resident advisor, campus safety officer, rape crisis center nurse practitioner, and police officer are all equipped to handle cases of sexual assault, and informing a victim of the school’s policies regarding whom to speak to first should be a priority. Furthermore, gaps in the responsibilities of student affairs professionals and campus safety officers can result in victims losing out on important information and procedures. Two of the main ways this issue arises are when administrators, campus safety officers, and law enforcement officers are not properly trained and educated on how to handle sexual assault cases. Memorandums of understanding between these institutions, in an attempt to coordinate which responsibilities lie under which agency, have the potential to be ineffective if an agreement is not put into effect.

How should we approach this issue?

The roundtable suggested several ways to address these issues.  Particularly emphasized was increased collaboration between campus and local law enforcement.  Moreover, Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) that include people from many agencies, including local and campus law enforcement, would expedite and clarify the process if a survivor decides to report an assault.  The survivor should also be provided a confidential advocate who can help guide them through the process, and ensure that all their options are presented to them.

Although one of McCaskill’s primary goals is to simplify policies in order to avoid over-legislating, the panel remained wary of merging the currently available venues for a survivor to seek justice.  The roundtable emphasized the necessity of giving survivors as many choices as possible. Different processes produce different outcomes, different standards of proof, and involve varying levels of public attention, and it is vital that survivors are empowered and are given several options and able to choose between them.  These concepts of survivor choice, and survivor-centric models were a trend throughout the roundtable.  Panelists said that survivors should be able to opt-in to things, like timely warnings – which currently mandates that a college report a ‘continuing threat’ to their student – and recordings of their initial interviews with law enforcement.

 Senator Blumenthal posed a question about alcohol use and whether toughening enforcement would help reduce cases of sexual assault on college campuses. Describing the issue as “the elephant in the room,” he correctly addressed the fact that alcohol is a factor in the majority of sexual assault cases; however, he was incorrect in assuming that intoxication leads to sexual assault. Participants at the roundtable collectively agreed that alcohol is often the weapon that perpetrators use to cause sexual assault and that strengthening enforcement was not the most effective way to combat this problem. Citing inconsistent state statutes on the definition of consent whether someone can consent while intoxicated, participants could not find a model state statute on consent. A consensus on basic definitions surrounding sexual assault, they agreed, was necessary among states. Moreover, bystander intervention training and education are critical as we move forward. By focusing on specific steps colleges and universities can take to better educate its students, students will be better prepared to handle potentially dangerous situations.

One of the biggest deterrents for survivors to report to law enforcement is the fear that nothing will come of it.  Therefore, in order to finally raise the number of reports, and the number of perpetrators brought to justice, we need to ensure that survivors are not discouraged from reporting by their university administrations, but also that law enforcement is given the training and resources to properly investigate cases. The coordination of universities and law enforcement officials is crucial in addressing this issue.

Watch Senator McCaskill’s roundtable here, and be sure to check out our recaps from the first and second 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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