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Oct. 9, 2014 Volume 36, No. 7

Missouri senator discusses sexual violence on college campuses


Sen. Claire McCaskill, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, has been vocal about combating sexual violence throughout her career. Photo by Rob Hill.

Sen. McCaskill engages students during her talk

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) spoke at the University of Missouri Tuesday to about a dozen students and more than 100 representatives from mid-Missouri colleges and universities, law enforcement agencies, the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and victims advocate groups about sexual violence on college campuses.

“This is about making sure systems are in place that nurture and support young women because right now on this campus and thousands of others just like it there is a young woman who is not coming forward because she doesn't have the right information,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, has been vocal about combating sexual violence throughout her career. She asked direct questions of Columbia Police Department Detective Mitchell Baxley, University of Missouri Police Department Chief Jack Watring and RSVP Center Coordinator Danica Wolf about how they are trained to handle sexual violence on campus. 

But some of the most eye-opening revelations came when McCaskill called on the students in the room. When asked if they knew where to go for support, one student hesitantly suggested the police.

Although McCaskill acknowledged that the police are a resource, she said if students don’t know about the additional on-campus resources, there is a problem.

“It would be like building a brand new beautiful building on campus and never telling anybody it was ever open,” McCaskill said. “If you’re going to build a system that works, it will only work if the kids know about it.”

Another student said the bigger problem among students is not understanding what is considered sexual assault. “Sexual assault is so vague,” she said, rattling off a handful of situations from inappropriate touching to a boyfriend going too far. “Do you report that? How do you know? When is it too little? Where is the line?”

McCaskill said the students’ responses should be “a wakeup call” for the administrators in the room who are working to improve the policies and procedures surrounding Title IX violations. Referring to her work with the U.S. Air Force’s Special Victims Counsel program, which assigns an independent lawyer to victims who report sexual assault, McCaskill said one of the most important things higher education institutions can do is establish a “confidential access point” for students.

“What we have found [in the U.S. Air Force] is that once these victims had someone they could rely on for good information, the unrestricted reports shot up,” McCaskill said. If a student who was unsure about what is considered sexual assault “were to call confidentially and ask those questions, she could get that clarified. I still think the most important thing is a confidential access point for support and information.”

McCaskill wrapped up by discussing the Bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which establishes an annual climate survey at universities, increases cooperation among campus and local law enforcement by requiring a memoranda of understanding among all pertinent agencies, and establishes a penalty of up to 1 percent of the institution’s operating budget for violating Title IX.

After her campus tour, she said her next course of action will be to revise the proposed legislation based on her conversations.

— Kelsey Allen