October 1, 2014

Campus Sexual Assaults – Speech to National Association of Attorneys General

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, and thank you, Attorney General Kilmartin.  It’s an honor to address the National Association of Attorneys General, and a particular pleasure to do so in my home state.  Welcome to Rhode Island, and thank all of you for the work you do every day to uphold our laws and keep our communities safe.  Attorneys General are often our citizens’ first line of defense against violence and fraud, and I have carried the lessons of that responsibility with me as I serve Rhode Islanders in the Senate.

While campus sexual assault is not a new phenomenon, the last few years have shed light on just how pervasive it has become.  Reports of sex offenses on college campuses rose 50 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to federal data.  And we know that many attacks go unreported.  This issue has gone from whispered hallway conversations to an impassioned national debate.  It has become a priority for university boards, police chiefs, and the White House alike, and it has even inspired innovations in the private sector—such as the development of video games and smartphone apps designed to protect women and encourage bystanders to step in.

This attention is overdue, and the public and private efforts to respond to the problem welcome.  Your focus on this issue is particularly welcome, and I commend Attorney General Kilmartin for his leadership. 

As a former prosecutor and as a parent, I know that reducing sexual assaults on campuses will require changes in attitude and culture, and a concerted effort to encourage and empower fellow students to intervene, just as the designated driver campaign has helped reduce drunken driving deaths.  Bystander intervention programs can help more young women and men feel responsible for the safety and wellbeing of their friends and classmates—women and men.  I applaud the White House for pushing back on a culture of quiet tolerance, and for launching the “It’s On Us” campaign last month.

On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the first piece of federal legislation aimed specifically at curbing the epidemic of campus sex assault.  I was proud to join in that effort, and am currently working to expand the bill to address the role of law enforcement in this complex legal landscape.

So let’s talk about that.  Attorney General Kilmartin and I have called together a broad array of voices here in Rhode Island to identify possible steps forward.  We may be a small state, but as the home to twenty-four college and university campuses, large and small, public and private, we have a unique opportunity.  In Rhode Island, we’re close—physically and in degrees of separation.  Key members of law enforcement, the advocacy community, and school administrators have begun meeting over the last few months, to agree on areas for improvement and to dispel some myths that compound the harm.

I want to focus with you on one especially harmful myth:  the myth that says that, once a victim of assault reports what happened to the police, she will have no say in her own destiny;  that going to the police will only lead to further trauma and loss of control.  

Related to this, of course, is the myth that pits a school’s administrative process against the criminal justice system—that one process will interfere with the other, that those responsible for each can’t work together, and that the victim will be caught in the middle.

Like many myths, these have some basis in reality.  Not all police officers, unfortunately, are trained to cope with young survivors of sexual assault, and not all engagement by investigators is as it should be.  We know, too, that the priorities and responsibilities of law enforcement do not always align with those of colleges and universities.  These systemic challenges are real, but we can solve them. 

Imagine what the process for a survivor of campus sexual assault might look like, done right.  Imagine that she was recently assaulted, and that it has taken all the courage she can muster to call that 24-hour campus hotline number to talk to a confidential advisor.  (Imagine first that she knows that 24-hour hotline number.)  A friendly voice answers the call and asks where the victim would like to meet, and whether she can bring with her a support team—an advocate and a police officer, just—the advisor emphasizes—to hear the student out, and let her know what her resources and choices are, and help her get medical care and a forensic exam.

The advisor is well informed about the criminal justice process and tells the student that she will be by her side—literally and figuratively—whatever the student decides.  The police officer explains that formally presenting the case for the police would simply keep open the option to pursue charges down the line; and that it would be highly unlikely for a prosecution to ever go forward without the student’s cooperation and consent.  At the same time, the advisor is straightforward about the risks of remaining silent—not just the risk that the attacker will harm again, but the risk that, should she change her mind and try to press charges later, it may well be too late. 

The student has the right to know that delays in opening an investigation and collecting evidence could mean the disappearance of that evidence altogether, and open up devastating questioning by a future defense attorney.   An advocate from the sexual assault support community could share her perspective about law enforcement’s role and serve as one more voice emphasizing the importance of keeping doors open and one more reminder that the student is not alone. 

If the student decides to bring charges, the specially trained police officer is right there.  The student now knows her.  There’s no lonely taxi ride across town to a stranger in an unfamiliar police station.  The officer knows how to ask the right questions, and be supportive.  The advisor pledges to accompany the student to any meetings at the police department or prosecutor’s office, where she will find professionals trained to work with college-aged women and men who have experienced sexual assault.  The officers and prosecutors will inform her and the advisors of exactly where they are in the investigation and what is next in the criminal justice process. The student knows that she may end the questioning or walk away from the case at any time.  Just as with the advisor, law enforcement officers have as their priority to keep her options open.  They do not want her to regret anything down the line.

Should a criminal investigation proceed, the student has the right to ask that it be kept confidential to the extent possible. This may involve new procedures for some DA’s offices and police departments, and we all know that, at first, agencies can resist change.  It would also require greater collaboration and cooperation with school administrators.  While cases are pending, schools would accommodate the accuser in terms of contact with the accused, but would put on hold proceedings that could jeopardize a criminal investigation. 

If a student wishes to end her cooperation in a criminal case, she may do so any time—but she will be doing so based not on fear or misunderstandings, but on an informed and deliberate choice.

Until we are willing to put more information and control in the hands of victims, they simply won’t trust the system enough to report sexual assaults in the first place.  We know this, sadly, from experience.  Until we find a way to expose victims to police officers before they have to make the fateful decision to file criminal charges, fear and uncertainty will remain a barrier.  Everything we do as law makers, law enforcers, and school administrators should be done with the goal of increasing reporting and rooting out offenders.  That means asking the right questions, providing full and accurate information, and letting the victims lead each step of the way.  It means focusing on medical care and evidence, and ensuring that students brave enough to come forward face respect rather than blame.  It’s going to be difficult, but if schools and police departments can’t work together better, it’s victims who will pay the price. 

Schools around the country are working hard to adapt to a changing social and legal landscape.  Many of them are already doing the things I mentioned, and many have established productive and positive relationships with local law enforcement.  Where federal laws and regulations serve to impede, rather than encourage, such progress, we must do better.   

Alleviating the crisis of campus sexual assault puts a responsibility on every state, every school, and every police department.  I am proud of the commitment of the National Association of Attorneys General to this effort, and look forward to working with you.