How Republicans' Higher Education Act Overhaul Could Make Preventing Campus Sexual Assault Much Harder

A 542-page bill overhauling the Higher Education Act (HEA) was introduced by Republicans on a House committee last week. Buried in that bill are the GOP's provisions concerning sexual assault on campus that critics say would make preventing instances of assault more difficult and further alienate survivors.

The provisions in this bill would allow Title IX campus climate surveys, which tell students how many sexual assault cases occur on their campus, to be conducted by colleges and unregulated by the government. They would also make it impossible for anyone to compare one university’s campus rape data to another, since schools "may not use the results of the surveys to make comparisons between institutions of higher education," according to the bill.

Michele Landis Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School, told ThinkProgress these latest provisions would essentially end transparency when it comes to disclosing the frequency of campus rape cases. This would make it much more difficult to prevent sexual assault, considering it'll be hard to find out what campuses are succeeding at keeping these occurrences down, and which one's aren't.

The proposed changes to the HEA would also allow higher learning institutions to halt or delay investigations into sexual assault accusations at the request of law enforcement. Advocates for survivors of sexual assault have said that this would undermine federal requirements under Title IX — the civil rights law that prevents gender discrimination in education — that colleges thoroughly investigate instances of sexual misconduct.

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Some in higher education say this new language won't have a huge impact on the current policy, according to Inside Higher Education, which already allows universities to hold off on investigations while police gather criminal evidence. But Alyssa Peterson of Know Your IX told the website that the GOP bill "basically imposes no safeguards on the process." She added, "It would allow schools to do nothing at the expense of survivors.”

Landis Dauber also pointed out that Republicans are treating sexual assault differently from other crimes on campus, which they're required to report under the Clery Act. “If I said your daughter has a 43 percent chance of a nonfatal stabbing at Harvard, you would be like, ‘Oh my god, 43 percent of women have nonfatal stab wounds at Harvard. I’m not sending my daughter to Harvard,’ but because it’s rape, schools have normalized it as the cost of doing business," Landis Dauber told ThinkProgress.

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This isn't the first time the GOP has attempted to change how campus sexual assault is handled protections for victims of campus sexual assault in favor of the perpetrators. In September, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on how campuses handle sexual assault investigations in order to protect those falsely accused. In reality, only about 2 percent of sexual assault allegations are false. This latest bill is no different in that it's another effort to make the lives of sexual assault victims on campus more difficult and provide defenses for those who are accused of assault.

While one in five college women are assaulted every year, only about 40 percent of those assaults are reported. Many cite the arduous process as a reason for not coming forward. Jessica Ladd, who created Callisto, a secure software platform for reporting of sexual abuse and harassment, told NPR that reporting her assault to campus officials while attending Pomona College was "more traumatic than the assault."

By making campus sexual assault databases even more difficult to access and allowing law enforcement to delay investigations into sexual assault cases, the GOP's new bill could create the impression that survivors are on their own. The fate of the bill is uncertain, but advocates area already worried that if it does go anywhere, it could lead to more survivors not coming forward, and more alleged sexual abusers getting away with their actions without consequences.