Senate Committee Hearings Examine Sexual Assault on Campus, No Room for Due Process

Glenn Ricketts

Sexual assault on college campuses continues to receive spotlight attention from the federal government.  On Monday, Senator Claire McCaskill (D. Missouri) presided at the third of three Roundtable sessions sponsored by the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight (under the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs).  Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor Pensions (HELP, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, D. Iowa) heard testimony from panelists on the theme, “Sexual Assault on Campus: Working to Assure Student Safety.”

McCaskill has been especially outspoken on the issue, and apparently doesn’t doubt that sexual assault occurs routinely. “Campuses that say they don’t have a problem are lying or denying or are incompetent,” she said during Monday’s roundtable, which focused on the procedures and administrative processes for dealing with complaints of sexual assault.  The first roundtable, held on May 19, examined the extent to which schools are in compliance with the Clery Act , which requires that campus crime statistics be reported annually to the federal government, as well as their preparations for implementing the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (saVE), a 2013 amendment to the Clery Act.  The second roundtable on June 2 assessed the impact of Title IX regulations in preventing and responding to campus sexual assault.  In addition, McCaskill has also recently sent a lengthy survey to 450 colleges and universities asking that they describe their current policies for reporting and processing complaints of sexual assault.  All of this accumulated information she indicated, would be used to craft amendments to the Higher Education Act, which McCaskill intends to propose this fall.  Much of the same ground was covered, if less extensively by yesterday’s hearing at HELP.   In both instances, invited witnesses, or “stakeholders” as McCaskill termed them, included survivors, feminist advocacy groups, law enforcement officers, federal officials, academic administrators and others. 

But there were very some striking omissions, given the heated controversy that the issue has generated with the general public. No testimony was heard, either from witnesses or panelists, challenging the reliability of the now-familiar one-in-five-college- women-are-attacked figure, and the prevalent consensus reflected the view that higher education is in a long-ignored state of siege.  Competent witnesses were certainly available – how about Christina Hoff Sommers or K.C. Johnson, for a start? - but apparently they weren’t invited. 

Especially glaring, though was the complete absence of invited testimony from civil liberties groups or individuals who could have balanced things a bit by describing the ominous erosion of due process and the rights of the accused which has frequently occurred at the hands of the campus tribunals that usually process complaints.  There was no place at either committee for FIRE, which has been sharply critical of these trends, nor for students whose lives have been disrupted because they’ve been tagged as “sex offenders” by campus kangaroo courts, even when local police concluded that there was no case.  Try and transfer to another school or apply for a job with that information permanently attached to your transcript.  Although the question of due process did come up briefly during the final roundtable session of McCaskill's committee, and some pointed comments about the inadequacy of campus dsiciplinary committees arose yesterday from HELP members, the subject needs far more attention than it's gotten so far.

None of this, of course, is to say that there is no problem with sexual assault on college campuses, even if the exact extent to which it occurs is in dispute.  But the issue is a complex, many-sided one (see our recently published compendium), and thus far, Washington has focused pretty exclusively on a single aspect of it.

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