Senate Sex Bill Requires Relationship Training

Bryan Ens
May 5, 2011

A new law proposed in the Senate would require universities to have stricter policies against sexual harassment and have mandatory relationship training–and some free speech groups say there are problems with the law.

Earlier this month, Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Campus Sexual Violence Act (The Campus saVE Act) which would require universities to enforce new disciplinary guidelines against crimes of sexual violence. The law would amend the existing Clery Act, passed in 1990, which requires universities to report all crimes committed on campus.

While the law attempts to define and combat all manners of sexual harassment, it would also require all incoming freshman and university employees to attend mandatory classes on dating and healthy relationships.

“The save act will expand Clery for the first time. If you think about it, it’s crimes that happen on campus all the time,” said Melissa Lucchesi, the outreach coordinator for Security On Campus, an organization supporting the Campus saVE Act.

According to Lucchesi, the law is necessary because one in five women are sexually assaulted in their time in college; she also pointed to statistics in the legislation, from the Department of Justice, that claim 85 to 90 percent of sexual abuse against women comes from an individual they know.

But, Lucchesi believes the biggest improvement will come from the mandatory education programs stipulated in the law.

“It is going to mandate prevention education surrounding sexual assault, So that students are aware of what’s going on, and know how they can help,” she said. “It is will be more meaningful change in the culture of violence.”

One of the main portions of the law requires universities to teach incoming freshmen the meaning of sexual consent. The language of the bill goes even further, specifically requiring education on: “the elements of healthy relationships and the right of individuals to live without the fear of becoming a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.”

Schools would also be required to provide written guides lines to all incoming students, added Lucchesi. “Any school receiving federal funding, they will have to have mandated education programs on campus,” she said.

Juley Fulcher, the director of policy programs for Break The Cycle, an assault victim advocacy group, hailed for it’s important to combating campus violence.

“We consider the bill to be a critical new step, we know that this violence exists, and we know that it’s not being effectively dealt with,” she said.

The mandatory education programs are one of the strongest aspects of the bill, said Fulcher.

“The idea is young people often do not fully understand, first of all what a healthy relationship looks like and how to avoid abusive and violent relations,” she said.

But while universities beef up their education policies there are questions about just how the legislation would be enforced on the campus level.

Will Creeley, the director of legal and public advocacy at The Foundation For Individuals Rights in Education, is concerned that the law will not give fair treatment to those accused.

“Our biggest problem with the Campus saVE Act is the fact that it would require schools to enforce a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof in adjudicating certain grievances at the campus level. That’s worrying,” he said.

The preponderance of evidence standard requires the least burden of proof to convict the accused and is mostly used in civil cases. In a case involving this standard, it would only need to be proved a 51 percent certainty that the accused was guilty.

According to Creeley, this could be problematic if universities are investigating claims of rape or harassment.

“It’s [the preponderance of evidence standard] really not well suited for determining guilt or innocence when the stakes are so high for those accused.” He said.

Creeley pointed to an intermediate standard of proof that would require 90 percent certainly that an individual was guilty. “The accuser and the accused have an interest in making sure that the determination of the evidence is reliable and worthy of respect,” he said.

Mike Hiestand, the legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, an organization that defends free speech issues on college campuses, also was concerned about how universities conduct investigations.

He said that universities often do not hold fair hearings. “They’re often conducted behind closed doors. It’s one of the last star chambers we have in this country,” he said.

University boards have little accountability in their proceedings, according to Hiestand.

Lucchesi didn’t agree with the criticisms of the standard of evidence. She pointed to a letter released by the Department Of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which states that disciplinary matters should be handled using a preponderance of evidence standard.

“While this is very serious, this is not going through a criminal justice system, this is not sending them to jail. This is a department hearing on campus; there should certainly be a different burden of proof, than the criminal justice system. We fully support of the 51 percent of proof,” said Lucchesi.

When the Senate begins hearings on the law, Creeley hoped that the evidentiary standards will be closely debated.

“It’s very easy to recognize the evil the sexual assault and violence,” he said. “We want to make sure that congressional legislators best intentions addressing this problem do so in a away that treat students accused of crimes with the necessary respect of due process.”

Bryan Ens is a senior at Northeastern University, and a member of the Student Free Press Association.