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Gillibrand wants better enforcement of sex-assault laws at colleges

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand , center, listens as

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand , center, listens as Emma Sulkowicz, left, a sexual assault survivor who attends Columbia University, reads a statement during a news conference attended by sexual assault survivor Wagatwe Wanjuki, right, who attented Tufts University, New York City students and college campus sexual assault survivors in the Senators Manhattan office on Monday, April 07, 2014. Sen. Gillibrand is launching a new effort to combat sexual assaults on college campuses, which studies show effect nearly one in five women in college nationwide. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said too many women are victims of sexual abuse at college campuses and schools aren't doing enough to enforce laws to curb the problem.

Gillibrand, who was joined by sexual assault victims from Columbia University at her midtown office Monday, sent a letter to the leaders of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, urging them to increase federal funding for better oversight of the schools' policies against campus sexual assaults.

The senator said too many victims either don't know their rights or are met with ill-prepared school administrators who don't do enough to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators.

"We will not allow these crimes to be swept under the rug," Gillibrand said.

New York State colleges and universities reported 365 forcible sex offenses in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the agency that oversees sexual assault complaints at colleges and universities.

Under the Jeanne Clery Act, schools must disclose information on campus sex crime complaints plus provide victims with certain rights and resources, or face serious fines.

Gillibrand said the federal department that investigates Clery Act violations has less than a dozen staff members to oversee thousands of complaints. She added that in a recent survey only one- third of 300 colleges complied with the act even though the number of sex assault complaints has increased over the years.

"This makes it all but impossible to enforce sexual assault rules on colleges and universities," she said.

In many cases, Gillibrand said students are encouraged to take the matter up with campus police who don't take the case to authorities. The in-school authorities aren't properly trained to look into alleged sexual misconduct and many of the cases take a long time to settle, most with little consequence to the alleged perpetrator, according to the senator.

Emma Sulkowicz, a junior at Columbia University, said she was sexually assaulted two years ago and reported the incident to the school because she felt they would be more help to her than the police. She said her complaints to the school were handled poorly and a report by a school official about the incident had errors and typos. The university dismissed her case and appeal, she said. "When we do see resources on campus that promise a fair sort of trial, fair jurisdiction and proposed sanctions that your rapist might get, it sounds like a lot more appealing than going to the police," she said.

Columbia University said it couldn't comment about Sulkowicz's specific case, but supports the senator's initiative and maintained that it complies with the rules of the Clery Act. In addition, the school said it took steps recently to improve sexual assault awareness with a town hall, improved training and an enhanced hotline for students.

"A commitment to increase awareness of such misconduct, decrease its frequency, support survivors of violence, and hold accountable students who violate university policies, has long been a priority at Columbia," Columbia President Lee Bollinger said in a statement.

Gillibrand said she hopes the Senate Committee will hear the request, which was cosigned by 13 other senators from both sides of the aisle, so that the issue of campus sex assaults can get a bigger spotlight.

"This is not about dates gone badly. This is not about, 'Oh she said yes then she said no.' This is about brutal crimes committed against typically younger women," she said.


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