Can Congress do the right thing? There's hope. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Can Congress do the right thing? There's hope. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senator Marco Rubio doesn't have much time for Democrats. But he does have two daughters. And so it was that Wednesday morning, he found himself standing in solidarity with a bipartisan group of senators that included Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill as they announced legislation to curb the scourge of sexual assault on U.S. campuses.

The proposed Campus Safety and Accountability Act addresses the nonreporting, underreporting and noncompliance with the previously passed Clery Act, which requires schools to report crimes on and off campus. With about a dozen designated staff at the Department of Education to oversee reporting at more than 6,000 colleges and universities, it's no wonder 63 percent of schools fail to comply. They have an enormous public relations incentive not to: Would any responsible parent send their daughter to a college whose stats showed she would have a good chance of being sexually assaulted sometime during her four years there?

The new legislation would correct lax oversight, enforcement, training and staffing at the Department of Education. It increases penalties for failure to report violations to as much as $150,000 per violation, up from $35,000. To improve underreporting, schools would have to administer an anonymous survey on assaults that would be published annually. They will also have to keep a searchable database on pending and resolved complaints that would give parents a way to judge the safety of campuses.

It's no cure-all, but it is an improvement over the status quo. Hack through the ivy at any school and you are going to find more sexual crimes than you imagined. A 2000 Justice Department report estimated that less than 5 percent of college rape victims report their attack. A Senate investigation set up to guide the legislation found that more than 40 percent of U.S colleges and universities haven't conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years. Another 20 percent don’t investigate all the incidents they've reported to the Department of Education. About 19 percent of undergraduate women have been the victims of sexual assault, making the "price of an education," Gillibrand said, "a 1-in-5 chance of being sexually assaulted." You are more likely to be a victim if you go to college than if you don't.

Nor are schools equipped to deal with violent crime. They're not law-enforcement agencies, and the systems set up to adjudicate complaints make kangaroo courts look good.

One of the most depressing findings from the survey, which included 49 of the 50 largest public universities, was that what we suspected -- sports stars get special treatment -- is actual policy. Parents should get a list of the 22 percent of schools where a sexual assault accusation against a quarterback is handled not by a dean but by the athletic department. Under the new bill, schools can no longer allow athletic departments or any other subgroup to handle such complaints.

The horror of this situation was documented in a front-page story in the New York Times this month. The picturesque Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, failed the student, but she also was a victim of life as some young people now live it. It makes you wonder if the binge drinking and hookup culture, which some women's groups applauded as a desirable step toward empowerment and sexual equality, has devolved into a rape culture. According to the Times, a friend of the victim in the Hobart case said six or seven kids may have watched as a football player appeared to sexually assault her on a pool table while they took pictures and laughed.

The freshman reported what happened, and a medical report showed forceful intercourse with multiple partners with sperm or semen in her vagina and rectum. Yet before the rape kit results were available, a secret hearing got under way. In 12 days, the college cleared three accused players, who lied to police until confronted with evidence and went on to complete an undefeated season. The woman had no advocate to guide her through a haphazard disciplinary proceeding in which witness statements were misrepresented by three poorly trained administrators (one ran the campus bookstore) relying on a mistake-riddled report. Rules of evidence and due process didn't apply. Hobart officials told the Times that the student got a fair hearing but that they couldn't say more because of privacy laws.

There's no reason to think this is an isolated instance. More likely, it is a vivid example of how schools with disciplinary procedures designed to deal with academic matters and minor breaches of behavior standards are completely unprepared to deal with violent conduct that, outside the ivory tower, would constitute a felony punishable by a long stay in prison.

The new law would go some way toward fixing such aberrations. Schools would be required to use a uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, rely on trained adjudicators and provide training for staff and faculty (one-fifth of schools don't have any such personnel). A victim couldn’t be penalized for an ancillary offense such as drinking, or for coming forward, and would be assigned a trained confidential adviser to see him or her through the proceedings.

Despite its bipartisan credentials and urgency, the law's chances of passage aren't good in a gridlocked Capitol. But there's hope. Republicans and Democrats alike may have daughters.

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.