- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Under a controversial bill pending in Congress, Missouri State University officials would be restricted in their ability to suspend or expel the alleged perpetrators in the rash of sexual assaults reported on campus this semester.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is crusading against the bill - picking a fight with its chief author and with national Greek organizations that have endorsed it. McCaskill and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are pushing an alternative proposal to curb sexual assault on campus, which they say would encourage more victims to report rapes and get rid of the “kangaroo courts” that some colleges have used to adjudicate sexual assault cases.

“The goal here is to improve and professionalize the (way colleges respond) to sexual assault,” McCaskill said of her proposal. That measure would impose stiffer financial penalties for universities that don’t file timely crime reports, require schools to detail how sexual assault allegations are handled and strengthen training for campus staff who deal with victims.

But on the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican and hard-charging conservative, says universities should get out of the business of handling sexual assault allegations. Universities can provide support services for victims, he said, but law enforcement officials should take the lead in investigating such cases.

“The initial investigation should be done by people who investigate felonies, and that’s not campus people,” Salmon said. “Do these people really have the training to investigate the rape scene?”

The brewing debate comes as sexual assault on campus has gained increasing attention across the country - and in Springfield. Six female students on MSU’s campus have reported sexual assaults in the past three months, raising alarm bells on campus and in the community.

All six incidents were referred to the Springfield Police Department. In one, the alleged victim has decided not to participate, and the investigation has been suspended in case she changes her mind. In another, the investigation ended without charges. Police are still investigating the remaining four cases.

Under Salmon’s bill, called the Safe Campus Act, colleges and universities would be required to refer a sexual assault allegation to police within 48 hours of receiving consent from the victim. The university would generally not be able to carry out disciplinary proceedings until the law enforcement investigation was complete.

School officials would be allowed to mete out “temporary sanctions” - such as a no-contact order or a short suspension - in 15- and 30-day increments if they determine the alleged perpetrator was an “immediate threat to campus safety and student well-being,” according to the text of the legislation. The school would have to hold a hearing, likely with the victim present, before taking any such steps.

If rapes are not reported to law enforcement and handled instead by university officials, Salmon said, perpetrators “get off with their hands slapped and they are going to go do it again. . Rapists and molesters tend to be repeat offenders.”

McCaskill said that in an ideal world, all rapes would be criminally prosecuted. But she called Salmon’s proposal “counterproductive” and suggested he does not understand the trauma and emotional stress victims suffer after a sexual assault.

“What if there is a young woman who, because she is traumatized and upset, can’t get her arms around the idea of sending this guy to prison but she just wants him off campus and doesn’t want to run into him every day,” McCaskill said. Under Salmon’s bill, she said, that avenue would be closed.

“Many of these are 17-year-old kids who have left home and within six months, this (attack) has happened,” McCaskill said. “(Salmon) is saying if they aren’t strong enough to go the police department and say ‘I’ve been raped,’ then we cannot help them. That is not understanding how you get victims to come out of the shadows.”

McCaskill said her bill protects due process for those accused of sexual assault and addresses the same concerns the Salmon bill addresses - without handcuffing colleges’ ability to take swift disciplinary action under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education.Competing proposals spark fight over curbing sexual assault on campus

MSU officials appear to agree, although they have not taken an official position on the competing bills.

“We are supportive of the general approach outlined in the McCaskill bill,” said Ryan DeBoef, chief of staff to MSU President Clif Smart. He said the university has “concerns” about Salmon’s bill.

“It would be a drastic difference with the way we’ve treated these situations,” he said. “Right now we don’t necessarily wait until criminal processes are started. It allows students the ability to determine which processes suit their situation the best.”

In Washington, the two bills have sparked a lobbying battle from outside groups, along with a war of words between McCaskill and Salmon.

The Springfield News-Leader (http://sgfnow.co/1Y0t9be ) reports a coalition of 220 victims-rights groups sent a letter to Congress opposing Salmon’s bill. “Requiring schools to wait until law enforcement acts, even if only at the behest of the survivor, ignores the actions schools can and must take to combat sexual violence,” reads the letter, spearheaded by the National Task force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women. The bill “will not help in solving these problems and will, in fact, make campuses less safe for survivors.”

But McCaskill and Gillibrand have taken aim at two national Greek organizations that have endorsed Salmon’s bill - the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference. Together they represent 100 fraternities and sororities, and they have hired a high-priced lobbyist - former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. - to represent them as Congress debates an overhaul of how universities handle sexual assaults on campus.

McCaskill and Gillibrand huddled in a basement room at the Capitol with representatives of the national fraternity and sorority groups. Afterward, both sides were tight-lipped about their discussion.

“Our meeting was a step in the right direction,” the two national Greek groups said in a statement to USA TODAY. “It revealed just how much common ground we share in aspiring to end the cycle of campus sexual violence, provide a more supportive environment for victims, and ensure all students and organizations are treated fairly on campus.”

McCaskill said she was optimistic they could work with the two groups and she hoped they would come around to supporting her legislation. “I’m going to withhold any further agitating comments,” she said.

Salmon, however, seemed irked by the private confab.

He accused the two senators of working behind the scenes “trying to trash” his legislation and using “intimidation” to get the Greek groups to drop their support.

It’s not clear how the fight will play out. McCaskill and Salmon are both hoping to attach their competing bills to legislation reauthorizing federal higher education programs, which is likely to advance later this year.

http://sgfnow.co/1Y0t9be

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