The next front in McCaskill’s sexual assault fight: College campuses

COLUMBIA, Mo. – After a successful effort to reform the military’s World War II-era military criminal justice system, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is planning to set her sights on a new theater in her battle against sexual assault: College campuses.

“College campuses might be worse,” McCaskill told a town hall audience on Monday in Columbia. For McCaskill, “college campuses are next” on her radar.

Right now, McCaskill, a Democrat, said she thinks there is a “huge problem” with rapes and sexual assaults going not reported on college campuses. Like in the military, McCaskill said victims have a fear of retribution, but in a different way on college campuses.

“They’re at an age where it is very difficult to find a way to move forward. I think that sometimes they immediately begin blaming themselves, ‘I shouldn’t have been at that party, I shouldn’t have had that much to drink and maybe it is somehow my fault,’” McCaskill said. “All of those things are crazy. It doesn’t matter how much you drink – you don’t deserve to be assaulted.”

At the University of Missouri here in Columbia, the university has taken steps to make resources available to victims. The university and students established the Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center – known as the RSVP Center – to put resources together in one place. The center offers graduate and professional trauma-informed staff to help with crisis intervention, a sexual assault nurse examiner at the University Hospital, legal advocacy, and even coordinates with the Department of Residential Life to help ensure safety for students.

At Mizzou, two forcible rapes have been reported in as many months to campus police already this year. One of those was reported by a female student to the Department of Residential Life on March 9. The other was reported on February 24. According to the University of Missouri Police Department – which is required to inform students of criminal activity on campus by the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1998 – the victim was assaulted in a residence hall. She identified the suspect as an acquaintance a day after the incident took place, and the police department did make an arrest.

The incidents at Mizzou so far this year follow three rapes in 2013, one in 2012, three in 2011, and one in 2010, according to the Missouri Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Other rapes in this college town are being reported to the Columbia Police Department (including three so far this year), and 63 in 2013 (a four-year high). Including its Columbia campus, university police departments across the University of Missouri System have reported three rapes so far this year, four in 2013, three in 2012, four in 2011, and two in 2010.

mccaskill tim wolfe McCaskill said she has already begun discussing the issue with Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System.

Statewide, the number of rapes resorted in recent years has been on the rise. In 2014, alone, victims have reported 218 rapes so far this year. In 2013, there were 2,021, following 1,401 in 2012, 1,355 in 2011, and 1,346 in 2010.

McCaskill, the former prosecutor in Jackson County, said she thinks that victims on college campuses are currently not getting enough information about the resources that may be available to them. She wants to find ways to consolidate information about what resources may be available to victims, to whom and where a victim should go to get immediate assistance, and generally “giving them good information so they aren’t frightened with coming out of the shadows.”

“In my experience, the main difference between whether case is successful in terms of putting a rapist in prison and one that isn’t is how much information a victim got at the critical moment that they first informed someone of it,” she said. “It is really looking to see how aggressively our campuses are stressing that with resources and personnel to help people in that situation.”

McCaskill’s pivot to the issue of sexual violence on college campuses comes after a successful effort to reform sexual assault laws in the military criminal justice system. The package, approved by the Senate earlier this month, removes the “good soldier” defense for service members accused of sexual assault and would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions. McCaskill successfully fought Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, over a provision that would remove the military commanders from the process, but the language that passed would offer civilian oversight if a commander declined to prosecute a case. The bill would also criminalize retaliation against victims who report an offense.

McCaskill’s office said she was in contact with Gillibrand over how to move forward and ultimately plan to work together to address sexual assault issues on college campuses.

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