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Key to Ending Campus Sexual Assaults is Transparency

National survey would give prospective students important info

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, center, and Kelly Ayotte, foreground, appear before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on human trafficking last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, center, and Kelly Ayotte, foreground, appear before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on human trafficking last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Choosing a college is an important decision. Each year, students spend dozens of hours discussing with their parents, teachers, counselors and coaches where they would like to spend the next few years of their lives. They pore over statistics, rankings and testimonials, trying to decide which school is the best fit. And data is everywhere: A prospective student can go online to find anything from financial aid statistics to the average class size to the number of robberies on campus.  

But one piece of critical information is conspicuously absent. When a high school senior wants to know how well her dream university responds to sexual assault cases, that information is nowhere to be found. In the hypercompetitive world of college admissions, few schools are willing to stand up and make public just how well their students think they are addressing incidents of sexual assault on their campuses. Instead, colleges essentially have an incentive to stay quiet; no school wants to be the outlier, the only one to admit it has a problem.  

We must change this. Our colleges and universities need a new set of incentives that would encourage them to go public and be transparent about their ability to prevent and respond to sexual assault on their campuses.  

Colleges and universities must address the problems on their campuses so that their students feel safe. To get to that point, our bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, would require every college and university in the country to take part in a national survey that asks students about the campus sexual assault climate at their school. The results would be made public, for any prospective applicant and any parent to see and be able to consider during the admissions process.  

We already have a snapshot of how big this problem is. The Department of Justice recently released the results of a major study that polled thousands of students across nine different universities about their experiences with campus sexual assault. The results were disturbing — one out of every four female college seniors reported experiencing sexual assault on campus during their college career, but they don’t tell us anything about where these assaults occurred.  

Without a survey, it is nearly impossible for applicants, students and parents to know how good or bad the climate is at any particular school. This information should be transparent and public. Our families deserve to know which schools have a sexual assault problem and which schools don’t, just as much as they deserve to know the school’s academic rankings or endowment.  

We recognize that there are skeptics who suggest that a standardized, national survey is a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and would be too difficult to implement. The Department of Justice study proved them wrong. The agency collected data from thousands of students in their recent study, from colleges and universities with diverse characteristics, including public and private, two- and four-year, with various student population sizes, and across different regions of the country. The survey reminded us that America’s college students need to have a voice on this issue. Without a clear, standardized picture of the sexual assault climate in all of our schools, we can’t fully diagnose this problem and ultimately resolve it.  

The key to understanding campus sexual assault — and then fighting it — is going to be in the data. If students report in the survey that their universities take them seriously and are doing everything possible to prevent assaults, to help survivors and to respond to incidents in a fair and transparent manner, the data will reflect it, and schools will have no reason to worry about going public with this information.  

Our families need to know which schools are taking the problem seriously and which are pretending there’s no problem at all. Our schools need to feel motivated to come clean about the extent of their sexual assault problem, so they can move to fix it.  

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democrat from New York. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is a Republican from New Hampshire.

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