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Fighting College Rape Gets Personal for Senators

Klobuchar recalls personal experience as prosecutor in pushing for legislation

A proposal on how the military handles sexual assault claims, supported by Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Kirsten Gillibrand, was blocked from a vote. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A proposal on how the military handles sexual assault claims, supported by Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Kirsten Gillibrand, was blocked from a vote. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Back when Sen. Amy Klobuchar was prosecuting crime in the Twin Cities, she says she often drew the tough assignment of telling rape victims that their cases wouldn’t be going to trial.  

“I still remember those cases when we would sit in a conference room with a victim, with their parents, and they would be students, and sometimes we would be able to say we can charge this case, but oftentimes I got the meetings where we couldn’t charge the case,” the Minnesota Democrat recalled Tuesday. “And we would have to explain to them we know something very bad happened here, but we cannot bring this case right now.”  

“Sometimes they would ask, why is he still in school? Why is he still in school?” Klobuchar said, speaking at a news conference backing a bill led by Democratic colleagues Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, along with Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa. The measure would require colleges to take steps to improve sexual assault response and give the Education Department new powers to mandate compliance.  

[Related: Key to Ending Campus Sexual Assaults is Transparency]
The issue seems exceptionally personal for many of the Senate’s former prosecutors and law enforcement officers. GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, recalled efforts he had undertaken as attorney general of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — the former state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Rhode Island — said point blank that the system has failed to serve rape victims.  

“Too often these cases have been mishandled from a law enforcement perspective. We know that we can do better,” Whitehouse said. We actually have models for how we can do better in the domestic violence and sexual assault arena.”  

[Related: Biden Tours Campuses to Combat Sexual Assault]
Grassley, Gillibrand, McCaskill and a large bipartisan contingent carved time from their schedule to push for the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which has been awaiting action in some form since 2014, always falling by the wayside because of limited floor time and a need to find the right vehicle, like an upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  

The legislation would direct universities to designate a confidential adviser for students to discuss the crime, help them decide whether to report it, and offer physical and mental health services.  

Schools would be required to issue campus climate surveys, allowing students to anonymously report instances of sexual assault. The bill would also allow the Education Department to alter their fines to schools for violating certain sexual violence rules under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Fines could be as large as 1 percent of a college’s operating budget, a fee that could reach millions at some schools.  

But for senators and victims-turned-advocates, patience is running short.  

“I went to my university for help, and when I did that, I was blamed. I was asked what I could’ve done differently in that situation to have prevented my own rape,” End Rape on Campus co-founder Annie Clark said. “Now nearly 10 years later, I am receiving calls from students, from parents, from professors who are trying to help their students, and their stories are exactly like mine.”  

Clark says she was sexually assaulted off campus while a student at the University of North Carolina in 2007, and that the federal efforts are needed to get schools to change the way they do business.  

But, as with all matters in the Senate, getting time and attention remain concerns for the sponsors of the bill.  

“The issue is floor time, and the issue is getting an opportunity to get a vote,” Gillibrand said. “We’ve been trying to include it in the higher ed bill, and so we want to make sure that we are included regardless of what form that bill takes, whether it’s a narrow bill or a larger bill, we want this to be included.”  

If that bill stalls out, Gillibrand and McCaskill (another former prosecutor) say they will push for a standalone vote.  

“The only challenge I think in that scenario is that there would be some members that would say this needs to go through the committee. Which you know, we do a lot of things here where it just magically appears on the floor without it going through committee. I don’t know why this bill would have to go through that process when so many other bills haven’t,” said McCaskill.  

How much support would the legislation get if it ever got to the Senate floor for a vote? Sen. Lindsey Graham believes it would be close to unanimous.  

“In a polarized political environment, this bill would get 90 votes. I’m just assuming 10 people won’t show up. The bottom line is we should do this, this year,” said the South Carolina Republican, who is another of the many co-sponsors.  

“The success will be to me years from now, maybe sooner rather than later I hope, that universities will market to parents and students here’s what we do to protect you.”  

Emily Wilkins contributed to this report.
Contact Lesniewski at and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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