Heller joins coalition on college sexual assaults

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Dean Heller attended the University of Southern California in the early 1980s, the availability of police escorts for students and the presence of alarm systems on lampposts was a constant reminder of the tough Los Angeles neighborhood adjoining the campus.

“It was out of necessity for the university to survive, to be able to prove to parents they were doing everything they possibly could to help protect their sons and daughters,” Heller said.

The Nevada Republican joined a coalition of seven other Democratic and GOP senators this week in a bid to force colleges and universities to show the same urgency when it comes to investigating and policing sexual assaults on modern-day campuses.

The Campus Accountability and Safety Act introduced by the group would require all schools to survey students annually about their experiences with sexual assaults. The anonymously compiled information would be posted online so high school students and parents can compare schools when applying

The bill would require schools to standardize their procedures for investigating assault reports and judging assault cases, and not leave it up to individual units, for instance the athletic department, to police their own.

Confidential advisers would be assigned to guide assault victims, and minimum training standards would be set for campus staff that take part in disciplinary cases. Schools would have to enter agreements with local law enforcers on handling assault investigations.

The bill would allow the Education Department to fine schools up to 1 percent of their operating budgets for certain violations of sex discrimination law and increase penalties for not reporting campus crimes from $35,000 per violation to $150,000 per violation.

The bill grew out of a 440-school survey by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that showed less than 5 percent of campus rape victims report their attack to law enforcement, and that more than 20 percent of schools aren’t investigating all the attacks they report to the government. Only half the schools make it easy for victims to report attacks online or through a hotline.

“There is a staggering statistic that one in five students attending university or community college will experience a sexual assault and that’s been true for the last five to 10 years,” Heller said Wednesday as the bill was introduced. “College should be one of the greatest experiences in a student’s life and it should not be marred by a memory of sexual assault.”

One “forcible sex offense” was reported in 2011 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and none in 2012, the latest numbers available. The figures don’t reflect incidents off-campus, where most students live, or in fraternity and sorority houses. The numbers also might not take into account that most assaults are not reported.

Heller in June convened a 90-minute roundtable on campus sex assaults at the College of Southern Nevada with two dozen administrators and women’s advocates. The meeting was closed to reporters, but afterward Heller said, “Obviously something needs to be done.”

Heller, who has put two children through college and has two others in college now, said as a parent he would have wanted to know while shopping how various schools stacked up on handling assault.

“I am the father of two daughters,” he said. “There are numbers available today that weren’t available four, five, six years ago when my first daughter attended college. It’s information my wife and I would have liked to have known.”

Contact Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.