Commentary Violence

The ‘Safe’ Campus Act Is Anything But

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr

Conservatives are, yet again, working to expand the unchecked power of police and increase our reliance on a violent criminal justice system. And this time they’re doing it with a bill that would have devastating consequences for rape survivors.

Even as we’ve witnessed unprecedented national conversation around police brutality this year, conservatives are, yet again, working to expand the unchecked power of police and increase our reliance on a violent criminal justice system. And this time they’re doing it with a bill that would have devastating consequences for rape survivors.

This summer, Representatives Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Kay Granger (R-TX) introduced the Safe Campus Act, a bill that would, among other requirements, preclude universities from disciplining students who sexually assault their classmates, unless the victims go to the police first. Their so-called Safe Campus Act is actually a misnomer: The bill, which is currently in the House Education and Workforce Committee, would make campuses dramatically less safe than they already are.

Very few survivors, particularly those on college campuses, choose to report sexual violence to the police. Many victims are assaulted by friends or intimate partners and, for many of these students, turning those individuals over to the cops isn’t a viable option. For others who are undocumented, gender nonconforming, or of color, going to the police often means risking suffering more violence, like deportation, police brutality, or criminalization themselves. For still others, struggling to stay in school in the wake of debilitating sexual violence is more than a full-time job; it isn’t possible to withstand the burden of a lengthy public trial. And yet more survivors know what the Safe Campus Act authors apparently don’t: that the criminal system almost never delivers justice to survivors who want to see their attacker found guilty or incarcerated. Despite the confident assertions by supporters of this bill that only the police are qualified to handle sexual assault, only three in every 100 rapists ever spend a day in jail because police and prosecutors fail to properly investigate cases or choose not to bring charges against an assailant. Survivors understandably fear retaliation for trying to press charges against perpetrators who will, most likely, remain in their communities.

The Safe Campus Act would trample Title IX, the decades-old civil rights law that requires equal access to educational opportunities to students of all genders. Because being raped by the guy who sits next to you in math class creates a barrier to your ability to learn, Title IX requires schools who receive federal funding to address gender violence as a civil rights violation and to remedy its effects, in order to ensure all students can access their right to education. That can mean offering a victim free counseling services, moving them out of a class shared with their attacker, or providing an extension on a paper due the week after the assault. It can also mean disciplining their assailant or removing them from campus—but under the Safe Campus Act, this would be forbidden unless the survivor goes to the police.

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The Safe Campus Act’s proponents claim that universities aren’t equipped to discipline students for rape because it’s a criminal act. But schools regularly hold students accountable for all sorts of disciplinary violations that, in a court, would be considered crimes: drug possession, theft, racial harassment, physical assault. Sexual violence isn’t exceptional. These are all common violations—some with real human victims—that schools investigate and address, regardless of whether the victim calls the cops.

The Safe Campus Act’s added reporting burden for rape victims is of a piece with antiquated rape laws from the 1970s and 1980s—laws that required prompt complaint, utmost resistance from victims, and independent corroboration. They made proving rape more burdensome than any other crime. It’s not hard to figure out the reason for the similarity. As my friend Dana Bolger said when quoted in a piece for Vice, “It’s clear that what’s animating the bill’s authors’ concern here isn’t the violence per se but the people who typically experience it—women—and the special skepticism our society reserves for them ….  Why else would we be okay with schools punishing students who commit physical assault but not students who commit sexual assault?” In other words, this bill reinforces the idea that victims—usually women—are hysterical liars, not to be trusted with our own experiences unless we can secure the backing of law enforcement.

But the bill isn’t just sexist; it’s dangerous too. As deputy director of Know Your IX, I hear every day from student survivors who say that, were the police further enmeshed in the campus process, they’d report to no one at all. A survey of student survivors that Know Your IX conducted with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence confirmed that further involving the police will dramatically decrease reporting to schools, leaving perpetrators free to roam campuses with impunity.

I suspect that the Safe Campus Act’s supporters don’t care much about those consequences.

The bill is backed by a disturbing coalition of supporters, many of whom are far-right and have proven anti-woman agendas. Two of the Safe Campus Act’s sponsors voted against the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization in 2013, and all three voted to restrict women’s reproductive health care and defund Planned Parenthood in 2015. Two prominent national fraternity organizations publicly endorsed the bill in a joint letter and are advocating heavily for its passage. And the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties organization that often advocates for accused rapists and pushes against policies that make it easier to report harassment and violence, has publicly lauded the bill, calling for its passage. When questioned by Congressman Jeffries during a recent House committee hearing about police abuse and skepticism of rape victims, Joseph Cohn, FIRE’s legislative and policy director, asserted that there “is no way to build up more trust with police than to work with them.” Could any comment be more seemingly oblivious to the national conversation around police brutality and mistreatment?

In contrast, advocacy groups and service providers who work directly on issues of sexual violence have unanimously spoken out against the SCA. In statements provided to the Huffington Post, 28 victim’s advocacy groups voiced strong opposition to the bill, including my organization, Know Your IX, and the Victim’s Rights Law Center, the American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Law Center, and a number of student activist groups. John Faubert, of the One in Four campaign, called the bill “colossally stupid legislation.” At the time of writing, more than 9,000 people had signed a petition started by a student survivor, calling on legislators to reject the proposal. The bill is also opposed by most higher education advocacy groups, including the American Association of Universities, the large lobbying arm of the association of private universities.

A strong alternative to the Safe Campus Act is the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) Campus Sexual Violence Act, a bipartisan effort introduced by Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA). HALT would increase federal enforcement of civil rights laws like Title IX and ensure that schools have fair and effective disciplinary systems in place. Unlike the SCA, HALT recognizes that while rape is a crime (and its victims should be able to report to the police if they so choose), it is also a civil rights violation, which schools—not the cops—are best positioned to handle.

The Safe Campus Act would create unconscionable and blatantly sexist barriers to reporting gender violence, making campuses less safe as a result. It’s a slap in the face to survivors who have shared their personal stories and organized tirelessly for better school policies. And, in a year that’s seen national attention to the rampant criminalization and police abuse of people of color—particularly gender violence victims—it’s painfully ignorant of the failures of the criminal justice system. Students need more and better options for reporting gender violence, not fewer. We must hold our legislators to a higher standard and demand real action to end sexual and dating violence on campuses.

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