California's Commitment to Student Safety and Sexual Harassment Prevention

Das Williams, Assemblymember, California District 37
Dec 1, 2014 9:11:55 AM

Sexual assault is a major problem across the country. Seventy-one institutions of higher education are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, for possible violations of federal law over the mishandling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Sexual assault crimes often go unreported on college and university campuses, largely due to a victim's belief that authorities will not take action. Students have lost faith in the system- many fearing retribution, lack of support, or that the criminal justice system will fail to bring the perpetrator to justice.

"If given the choice, I would go back in time and never report anything to anyone," said a student at a September 24, 2014 legislative hearing, "because the process that followed is far more upsetting than the assault itself."

With the passage of SB 967 in September 2014, California became the first state in the nation to establish an affirmative consent standard  in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to engage in sexual activity. Having this clear consent policy is important, but equally important is enforcing the policy with appropriate disciplinary measures for violations. 

Based on the testimony provided at my Assembly Higher Education Committee roundtable, which took place on September 24, 2014, students do not have faith that campuses will appropriately enforce these policies. These students openly stated they'd never heard of anyone being expelled for rape. Without a perceived belief in administrative authority or faith that campuses will handle complaints properly, victims are less likely to come forward and there is no deterrent effect for the perpetrators. Thus, the need for meaningful discipline is real; discipline that can justify the emotional turmoil a claimant potentially experiences in reporting abuse. Part of the problem, however, is that we have an anecdotal understanding of how campuses address sexual assault. 

An important step toward understanding if campuses are appropriately handling cases is for the public to know the disciplinary outcomes of these cases. We must ensure that our campuses are offering support and resources, investigating crimes, and prosecuting perpetrators in order to grasp the true magnitude of the problem. A possible solution may be requiring reporting of disciplinary outcomes from sexual assault cases. This disclosure can be done without violating student privacy or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

FERPA does not block an institution from providing these numbers. The U.S. Department of Education guidance allows schools to release information, including specific sanctions, if a student is "an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense" who violated university policy. While FERPA permits this disclosure, it does not require it, and a college is free to withhold such information. Requiring transparency from universities could shed light on whether schools are uniformly and properly handling rape investigations, and this could bring comfort to students when debating coming forth with allegations of sexual violence.

Campuses are making some progress, but after hearing from students and victim advocates, a great deal more must to be done to change the unsettlingly pervasive rape culture on our college and university campuses. Creating a level of transparency in which the public could explicitly see how universities are handling these cases will give students faith in their school's disciplinary system, provide the necessary support to voice wrongdoings when witnessing or experiencing sexual assault, and demonstrate to offenders that there is a very real price to pay when committing such acts of harassment and abuse.