NORMAN — If there were a medal of valor for members of Congress, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand would deserve it for their success in reforming the U.S. military. Thanks largely to their efforts, the armed services must radically change the way they investigate and prosecute sexual assault.
The senators dissected the chain of command, examined policies and procedures, and tackled a culture that was more inclined to protect accused sexual predators than to protect and vindicate the victims, who were usually female.
More than 30 new provisions are now in law. It is now a crime for a member of the military to retaliate against someone filing a complaint. Commanders may no longer overturn convictions. Dishonorable discharge is the very least that happens after a member of the military is convicted of sexual assault. The changes are monumental.
Now McCaskill and Gillibrand have turned their attention a scene where sexual assault is just as egregious and indulged with similar laxity by officials: college campuses.
This time, the sacred cows are fraternity row, university athletic departments and institutional prestige. Also at play are the public’s attitudes about young people, alcohol and sexual violence.
Much like the military, colleges and universities all too often react to sexual assault first and foremost to shield the institution, not to help the victims. A common complaint is that, when allegations are made, college officials hesitate to investigate or try to dissuade victims from filing criminal complaints. The senators aim to get campuses to increase reporting and change the ways they respond to sexual assault.
One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, according to “The Campus Sexual Assault Study,” a 2007 study conducted for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. The statistic by itself is an argument starter. Cite it and you’ll be accused of crusading against young men and of excusing the unladylike drinking of female coeds.