Federal regulations on campus sexual assault take effect, just in time for 2015 school year

Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress at Columbia University's graduation ceremony, May 19, 2015. (Photo: Adam Sherman/Wiki Commons)

The increasingly public fight against campus sexual assault reached a watershed this week, as a set of major federal regulations aimed at combating the nationwide problem quietly went into effect.

As of July 1, all colleges and universities that receive federal funding (which is most of them) must now comply with a set of rules for reporting, adjudicating and preventing incidents of sexual assault on campus. The new rules are the product of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination, or SaVE, Act, which President Obama signed into law alongside the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in March 2013. As lawmakers across the country propose a variety of statewide approaches to cracking down on campus sexual assault, this week’s implementation of the SaVE regulations highlights just how long it can take to enact change.

In June of last year, a team of students, attorneys, student affairs professionals, campus law enforcement officials, victim advocates and others completed a draft of the new campus safety regulations and submitted it for public comment. In October, the finalized version was published, giving schools ample time to begin implementing the new rules ahead of the official July 1 deadline.

The regulations are geared toward promoting transparency and prevention. Schools are required to make sure students are informed of the counseling, advocacy and other resources available to them on campus, of their options for reporting sexual assault to campus officials and outside law enforcement, and of how their confidentiality will be protected during the process.

Clear procedures for investigations, hearings and disciplinary action related to sexual assault cases must not only be adopted by each school, but also made public and explained to the students involved. In addition to the existing requirement for reporting sexual assault claims, schools must now report annual statistics on incidents of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking on campus, as well as gender identity- and nationality-motivated hate crimes.

Administrative officials tasked with adjudicating sexual assault cases must receive annual training specific to investigating sexual assault claims. But schools also need to provide ongoing prevention and awareness training for all students and faculty — not just freshmen and new hires — that includes an explanation of the school's policies on sexual assault and dating violence and its definition of consent, and urges bystander intervention.

In a blog post on the Huffington Post Wednesday, Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, a 134-year-old nonprofit that advocates for female education and equality, pointed to the provision on prevention training as one of the most important.

“Why? Because it is the tool we’ve needed to spur a shift on campuses,” she wrote. “While some schools have been making real efforts to address the epidemic of sexual violence, too many have been ignoring the situation — or worse, sweeping it under the rug.”

But now the stakes have been raised: As of July 1, failure to comply with the regulations could result in a $35,000 fine and the potential loss of federal student aid funding.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who originally sponsored the Campus SaVE Act, called the law and its now-binding provisions “a huge step forward in protecting college communities and providing resources for victims of domestic violence or dating violence as well as sexual assault and stalking.”

“This process always takes too long, but they’re finally taking effect,” he said.

Just in time for the new school year.