US university presidents will be held accountable for sexual abuse that takes place on their campuses if legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of senators is implemented.
The bill would require federally funded colleges and universities to certify annually that the school’s president (or equivalent officer) and at least one other member of the board of trustees have reviewed all incidents involving employee sexual misconduct that had been reported to the Title IX coordinator at that institution in the previous 12 months.
The annual certification would also require confirmation that neither the president (or equivalent) nor the board member had interfered with or inappropriately influenced an ongoing investigation.
US senators Debbie Stabenow (Democrat), Gary Peters (Democrat) and John Cornyn (Republican) developed the Accountability of Leaders in Education to Report Title IX Investigations (ALERT) Act in response to the mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University.
Lou Anna Simon resigned as president of Michigan State in January after mounting pressure in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving the disgraced former gymnast physician Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young athletes. She had faced calls to quit amid concerns about her lack of response to complaints about Nassar.
Meanwhile, last year three Penn State officials – former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Timothy Curley and former vice-president Gary Schultz – were sentenced to jail terms after an investigation into convicted serial rapist and child molester Jerry Sandusky, who worked as a football coach at the institution.
Under Title IX legislation, colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required to establish clear procedures for promptly responding to instances of sexual violence on campuses.
They must also have a Title IX coordinator in place to oversee investigations, coordinate disciplinary actions and ensure compliance with federal guidance.
However, in both the Nassar and Sandusky cases, university leaders failed to take action on or claimed to have been unaware of reports of sexual abuse by university employees, even though official Title IX or external investigations had been conducted, according to a release announcing the legislation.
Mr Peters said that colleges and universities “must do more to protect the safety of our children, and we must hold them accountable when they fail”.
“Too many young people have suffered appalling harm from abusers who should have been stopped by university officials,” he said.
“I’m introducing this legislation to ensure that ‘I didn’t know’ will never again be an excuse for permitting monstrous abuse to continue under the watch of the officials we trust to look after our children.”