COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill told student advocates, victims of sexual assault and University of Missouri administrators at her alma mater Tuesday that she hopes to use their advice in a revised draft of national legislation aimed at curbing sexual assaults on college campuses.
Her talk at the school, which has been criticized for its past handling of student-athlete assault claims and just last week adopted policy changes, was part of a statewide tour to gather input on how to improve national sexual discrimination legislation introduced this summer.
“The step that’s most important is making sure students are in that room and students are aware and that students are fully participating, that students take on some ownership of improving this whole system,” McCaskill said in Columbia, where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees.
The Democrat has helped spearhead several national efforts to combat sexual assault, including one that passed with overwhelming support in the Senate addressing military sexual assault, which Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.
The Campus Accountability and Safety Act so far has bipartisan support, McCaskill said. If passed as written, it would require annual anonymous surveys of students to get a snapshot of the school’s “climate” and require schools to have confidential advisers on campus. Universities could face penalties ranging from $150,000 for certain reporting violations to 1 percent of their operating budgets for violations of Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits sexual assault, stalking, dating violence and harassment.
On Monday, McCaskill visited the Missouri University of Science & Technology, one of at least 76 campuses nationwide under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations.
University records provided to The Associated Press in August show the Rolla school disciplined six students for unspecified sex offenses between January 2009 and late July. One case led to an expulsion and four involved probation and lesser punishments.
Meanwhile, the University of Missouri-Columbia punished 14 students during the same time period, the records showed, with the sanctions including seven expulsions, two one-year dismissals and two suspensions.
Mizzou has made headlines over the handling of sex assault cases involving student-athletes. Former running back Derrick Washington in 2011 was sentenced to five years in prison for sexually assaulting a former tutor, and others made assault allegations against him before the legal proceedings.
And an outside review ordered by the school into the alleged off-campus rape of former swimmer Sasha Menu Courey by several football players in February 2010 faulted the university’s response and determined that the school’s Title IX coordinator and local police should have been alerted in November 2012 after a public records request by her parents produced documents that alluded to a possible attack. Menu Courey committed suicide in 2011 after leaving the school.
Since then, the university has adopted a number of policy changes that McCaskill said shows the school has “turned a corner,” including an executive order from university President Tim Wolfe in April requiring most employees report violations and a tentative 60-day period to investigate sexual harassment or discrimination cases.
McCaskill said she hopes to change the legislation to funnel the money from Title IX penalties back into resources and other support for college victims, a suggestion from a Missouri student.
Some students at Tuesday’s speech said policy changes aren’t enough - a change in campus culture is vital.
Kelsey Burns, a presentation coordinator with the MU Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center, said she was sexually assaulted her first week on campus and that survivors often don’t report out of fear of how they’ll be treated.
“I didn’t think it would matter,” the 21-year old senior said about not reporting her assault.
Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier in St. Louis contributed to this report.
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