Updated: June 2, 2015 at 5:06 p.m.
At a preview of “Campus Cover-Up,” a VICE on HBO special about the smokescreen universities operate behind when it comes to sexual assault, it was clear that the federal government is slowly but surely turning a murky system on its head.
By the time the event began, organizers were turning people away from the already full Jack Morton Auditorium in the Media and Public Affairs building. Attendees included representatives from the D.C. Rape Crisis Center and the It’s On Us campaign.
Gianna Toboni, a VICE on HBO correspondent, introduced a 15-minute-long snippet of the episode, “Campus Cover-Up,” before conducting a Q&A with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., both major proponents of sexual assault legislation on the Hill.
Gillibrand had invited Emma Sulkowicz, the recently Columbia University graduate whose protest-turned-thesis Mattress Performance sparked the Carry That Weight campaign and a nationwide debate about universities’ commitment to students’ safety, to the State of the Union this year.
She and McCaskill hope to push the the Campus Accountability and Safety Act through Senate this year when Congress passes an education bill, which they said it has bipartisan support. The bill calls for a survey to be conducted at every university that receives federal funding every two years. Students will be asked how safe they feel on campus and how they think their university handles sexual assault reports.
Gillibrand, who attended Dartmouth University and was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, said the bill will make schools more accountable and provide a snapshot of how safe students feel at their school.
She added that the survey, which universities will have to post on their websites, will “change the colleges’ interest in getting it right. This will completely flip the incentives and [make] them take cases seriously,” she said.
Last year, McCaskill conducted a survey of 440 universities and found that 41 percent were “failing” students who by not conducting any sexual assault investigations in the last five years, a fact she called “ludicrous” on Monday night.
Under the federal Clery Act, universities are required to report every crime that happens on campus, including sexual assault. McCaskill, a former auditor, said she was confident in the results of the survey because universities were assured that their names would not be revealed.
Gillibrand said sexual assault is typically premeditated and that the men who sexually assault fellow students are typically serial rapists who commit these crimes about six times during their tenure on campus.
“If I were a college president, I would want the tools to get a rapist off my campus,” Gillibrand said.
The senators emphasized the importance of training campus officials and police officers on how to conduct professional interviews with survivors in the days or even hours after a sexual assault.
Under the bill, the first person the survivor speaks to would be trained to explain the survivors’ options to her, Gillibrand said.
In “Campus Cover-Up,” a sexual assault survivor at the University of Arkansas wears a hidden camera to a 90-minute panel, where she informally testifies against an athlete who, she said, attacked her in the dorm room.
One panelist asked the survivor if she had bruises on her arms – not just her pubic area – and another panelist asked if she felt pressured, even after the survivor said she had “never said ‘no’ so many times in [her] life.”
The panel, Gillibrand and McCaskill said, exemplified that those determining the fate of the alleged rapist obviously did not understand the violent nature of sexual assault.
McCaskill cited the incident at Pennsylvania State University involving members of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity posting photos of naked, unconscious women in a Facebook group as an exemplar of change.
“Somebody in that circle had to be brave and say, ‘what are you doing? You are sick,’” she said. “It’s not just the survivors that need to get amped up about this. Anybody who is silent is part of the problem,” McCaskill said.
The episode premieres on Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.