The XX Factor

Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill Slam Fraternities That Lobby For Sexual Assault Bill

Sen. Kristen Gillibrand embraces End Rape on Campus co-founder Andrea Pino in Washington, D.C., in July 2014.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I would be very upset if I were a young woman in a sorority today,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) on a press call this afternoon. Along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), McCaskill criticized the national fraternity and sorority organizations that are currently using their members’ dues to lobby for a House bill that would make it more difficult for colleges to punish alleged perpetrators of sexual assault.

The so-called Safe Campus Act would prevent colleges and universities from taking action to make their campuses safer under Title IX after a sexual assault unless the victim made an official report to law enforcement. Even then, the university would not be able to enact final disciplinary measures against the perpetrator until the police finished their investigation—a process that could take months or years, during which the perpetrator could remain on campus.

The two major U.S. fraternity and sorority coalitions—the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) and the National Panhellenic Conference, respectively—have joined with the Alpha Tau Omega and Sigma Nu fraternities and the Kappa Alpha Order to support the Safe Campus Act with help from big-time lobbyists like former Republican senator Trent Lott. Meanwhile, organizations that work with rape survivors have overwhelmingly registered their opposition.

“You have this anomaly they’re proposing, where a young woman could be robbed at gunpoint and decide that she wanted to just try to get that person off campus and go to her university and they could take action under Title IX,” McCaskill said today. “But if she was raped, she would not be able to do that unless she made the decision to go to the police.”

Law enforcement agencies and college campuses serve very different purposes in addressing sexual assault. The former will try to collect enough evidence to convict a suspect, who’ll be labeled a sex offender for life and maybe serve jail time. The latter, which must provide a safe learning environment for students regardless of gender under Title IX, is concerned with campus security, and can take immediate action to remove the offender from university grounds or withhold a degree. Colleges must take measures to prevent sexual assaults and create safe channels for survivors to seek help; police and courts do not.

Gillibrand remarked that colleges have already routinely underreported the prevalence of sexual violence on their campuses for PR reasons, and survivors could easily be discouraged from reporting their assaults at all if faced with the Safe Campus Act’s extra barrier. “The goal of any campus sexual assault legislation should be to encourage survivors to report the crime so that schools and law enforcement can be better equipped and able to fight it,” she said. “The sexual assault bill that was introduced in the House does exactly the opposite. … Their bill would worsen our understanding of a violent crime that is already drastically underreported, and their bill would reduce the school’s ability to properly fight sexual assault.”

Since last summer, McCaskill and Gillibrand have led a thoroughly bipartisan group of their colleagues in cosponsoring a different campus sexual assault bill in the Senate, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The law would drastically reform and standardize university processes for addressing cases of sexual violence. It would require universities to nominate and train a “confidential advisor” to serve as a resource for student victims of sexual violence or stalking; make their disciplinary proceedings conform to nationwide standards; solidify jurisdiction and division of responsibilities with local law enforcement; and pay a much steeper fine if they don’t comply. The bill also proposes a biannual survey of students at every university in the country on their experiences with sexual violence.

Both senators dismiss claims from advocates of the Safe Campus Act that the bill is all about ensuring due process for the accused. Gillibrand says the Campus Accountability and Safety Act is already written with due process in mind, principally by making campus sexual assault investigations uniform across the U.S.: “The kangaroo courts that exist today will be over.”

But if the Safe Campus Act were truly about due process, plenty of other students’ rights activists would have rallied behind it. It’s telling that these Greek organizations are the ones to push the bill—it seems like an implicit recognition of a culture that protects perpetrators of sexual assault. In fact, the NIC has a rather notorious ability to slink out of lawsuits aimed at individual fraternities. The bill seems far more concerned with creating a safer university environment for alleged rapists than for potential victims, especially young women.

The lobbying of the sorority trade organization, the National Panhellenic Conference, seems incongruous to McCaskill and Gillibrand, both of whom pledged sororities in their college days. “It concerns me that perhaps the sororities aren’t fully aware of the situation because this will overwhelmingly harm their members and harm the young women they represent,” Gillibrand said. McCaskill said she’s sent individual letters to fraternities and sororities in Missouri to let them know that “the organization they’re paying dues to is actually taking this giant step backwards.” The Safe Campus Act currently has only four cosponsors in the House, but McCaskill said she’s more worried by the implications of the Greek organizations’ support for the bill than with its slim chances of passing.

One fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, has cut ties with the NIC, with which it has been aligned since its 1909 founding. The fraternity’s international head released a statement that derided the NIC’s “counterproductive tactics that we believe are antithetical to our values.” Other members of these Greek organizations would be wise to question what kinds of values the Safe Campus Act upholds.

Correction, Oct. 29, 2015: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the Campus Accountability and Safety Act as the Campus Safety and Accountability Act.