In a bipartisan effort, state lawmakers have passed two bills to better assess and address campus sexual assault.
OLYMPIA — Amid a national conversation about how to better address sexual violence on college campuses, state lawmakers have passed two bills that seek to better gauge, respond to and reduce the number of sexual assaults at Washington colleges.
The bills are part of a bipartisan push this year to address an issue that has come to national attention through high-profile incidents, including the recent conviction of two former Vanderbilt University football players on charges of raping an unconscious woman in 2013.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed one of the bills, Senate Bill 5518, into law Friday. Sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, it adds provisions in state law to ensure a standardized disciplinary process stemming from sexual-assault allegations and to strengthen confidentiality measures for those seeking help. The bill improves transparency for how complaints are reported and kept confidential, and also calls for a one-time survey to gather better information on campus sexual violence.
Another bill, Senate Bill 5719, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, will head to the governor’s desk soon. That one creates a statewide task force to bring education executives, law-enforcement officials and others together to develop recommendations on how to reduce campus sexual violence and spread awareness about it.
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Both bills had Democratic and Republican co-sponsors and easily passed the House and Senate.
“Some of the things that have been reported recently are so egregious we can’t ignore the fact that we do have a problem,” said Bailey.
The Kohl-Welles bill calls for a one-time campus climate survey to better assess sexual violence at colleges and universities.
“A lot of our colleges are doing really, really well” addressing sexual violence issues, said Kohl-Welles. “But there’s more to do.”
Trying to determine how often sexual assaults happen on campuses is a problem around the country.
A study published this year by the American Psychological Association found that “sexual assault data supplied by schools is likely severely undercounting the number of reported incidents on campuses.”
Data reported to the federal government sometimes shows that “on giant campuses with tens of thousands of students, there’s only one or two rapes a year,” according to Scott Berkowitz, president of the nonprofit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
“Nobody actually believes those numbers,” said Berkowitz.
In 2013, the University of Washington’s Seattle campus reported two instances of forced sexual assault on campus and seven off-campus, according to U.S. Department of Education data. The university — which the data lists as having more than 43,000 students — reported no instances of non-forced sexual assault.
Kohl-Welles and Ellen Taylor, an assistant vice president at the University of Washington, both say those numbers are probably too low to reflect what’s actually happening.
“I think that it’s an underreported incident,” said Taylor, assistant vice president for student life and director of counseling at the university, adding later: “This is a crime that’s extremely difficult to address.”
The one-time campus survey, part of the Kohl-Welles bill, is to be used by four-year institutions to determine the prevalence of sexual assaults on their campuses.
For technical and community colleges, the survey will be used to gauge various issues related to campus sexual violence — such as whether sexual-assault survivors are reporting those instances to law enforcement or the school, and what student and employee attitudes are regarding campus sexual violence.
Schools will report their findings to the Legislature and governor by the end of 2016, along with a plan for a public-awareness campaign for campus sexual violence.
SB 5518 also requires schools to use one set of sexual-assault investigations and proceedings for all students. Further, it directs institutions to make information available about whether they are in compliance with confidentiality and reporting requirements for campus sexual violence.
While sexual assault is a longstanding problem — and not just limited to college campuses — Taylor said she’s optimistic over the amount of attention it is now getting.
“I think it’s really great the conversation has taken off at the national level,” said Taylor.
Berkowitz is also optimistic. “No one knows for sure what’s going to work best” to reduce campus sexual violence, he said. “But the good news is that people are finally paying attention to the problem.”