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Kirsten Gillibrand, Pushing New College Sexual Assault Bill, Still Has Hope For Failed Military Reform

"We just need more data." The Democratic senator's potential second crack at changing sexual assault

Posted on August 15, 2014, at 11:14 a.m. ET

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand still believes she can convince the last several senators who voted against her sweeping and controversial effort to change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault.

The New York Democrat's bill that would take the prosecution of sexual assault cases outside the military failed 55-45 in March, a surprisingly narrow defeat. In an interview with BuzzFeed, the New York Democrat said Wednesday she thinks she can "win over the last few senators" with a new, shifted approach.

Gillibrand has requested the raw data for all sexual assaults from "the four major bases, one for each of the services." Instead of focusing on the nine out of 10 service members who don't report assaults, Gillibrand wants to focus on the one in 10 who do. She believes looking at that smaller set of people will demonstrate the discrepancies in what the military says publicly on the topic.

"We just need more data," Gillibrand said.

When that data will be available is less clear: The request was made five months ago. It took four years for a similar request made by the Associated Press for the statistics on sexual assault on just one base in Japan to be completed, Gillibrand said. That report revealed that of nearly 500 sex crime allegations, only 24% went to courts-martial at that base.

"When a survivor speaks out and tells what happened to him or her, that is overwhelmingly persuasive," she said. "When we get that data, we will be able to assess it and say 'This is what the cases look like when they're reported ... This picture is not pretty either. This is a picture of justice not served.'"

In the interim, Gillibrand has launched a second initiative into addressing how college campuses deal with sexual assault with a bipartisan group of senators, including fellow Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose competing military reform bill passed unanimously in the Senate just days after Gillibrand's failed.

Gillibrand has proposed a handful of new policies and penalties for colleges. On Wednesday, she elaborated on one of the bill's key pieces: an anonymous survey filled out by sexual assault victims that would be sent to the Department of Education and published for the world — and prospective college students and parents — to see.

Gillibrand said schools wouldn't be able to touch the survey information. Currently, schools oversee Clery Act reporting, submitting their own number of annual sex crimes — a process many argue gives schools an incentive to make cases disappear. Gillibrand is aiming to remove the school as middle-man and introduce a higher standard of transparency into the process.

"Now, because the climate of the school is going to be public, their incentive is to clean it up, actually fix the problem," Gillibrand said — which may cause the most headaches for colleges under the proposed bill. There will be no easy, standardized fix; what contributes to a dangerous climate, Gillibrand said, is not necessarily the same thing at any two campuses. While discussing these potential factors, she actually brought up an example from her personal life:

"When I was freshman at Dartmouth, I received a note in my mailbox the first week as to where I was rated in my class in terms of how good looking I was — that sets a climate," she said. "I was a very young freshman and I didn't care and I just disregarded it, but that could undermine peoples' feeling of safety — that on their first day they're being objectified. That is not a great feeling for a young student."

Gillibrand also emphasized her proposed requirement that schools hire confidential advisers to thoroughly explain victims' reporting options to them — and addressed one notably absent aspect: standardized sanctions for perpetrators found to be guilty by their colleges. Punishments for those students currently range from book reports to expulsion.

While the senator said she personally supported a minimum penalty for those adjudicated as responsible and didn't rule it out for the future, the senators "didn't have consensus on it" prior to the bill's introduction.

Gillibrand's core pursuit, however, is creating incentives for institutions to be transparent about their internal climates of sexual violence.

"They have to assess, 'What are the risks in my school? What's causing these negative climates? Is it alcohol-infused? Is it sports-team infused? Is it a certain class of students feeling above the rules?'" she said. "That's their job, or they're going to get bad press."