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U.S. Senate bill would make colleges get tough on sexual assault

By Elvina Nawaguna

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation on Wednesday to combat sexual assaults on college and university campuses by requiring schools to provide more help for victims and work more closely with police investigators.

If the bill passes, it would also require colleges to make public the number of sexual assaults reported on their campuses.

Supporters said it was crucial for the federal government to do more to fight the problem.

"It's deeply troubling that for too many, and a growing number of young Americans, the college experience now also involves sexual assault," said Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the bill.

An American woman in college is more likely to be a victim of sexual assault than a woman who is not attending college, Rubio said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five undergraduate women experiences some form of sexual assault. A smaller percentage of men are also victims. Many cases often go unreported.

In May, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges it was investigating for possible violations in their handling of sexual assaults and victims' complaints.

Connecticut Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal, another sponsor of the bill, said the measure would address "a demand for justice" from students who have often felt they were victimized twice - first by their attacker and then by university personnel who mishandle the reports.

To encourage victims to come forward, the legislation would require schools to train staff in handling sex assault cases and provide advisers to confidentially assist victims.

Campuses would be required to follow a uniform procedure for dealing with reports of sexual assault. Some colleges deal with sexual assault cases through their athletics departments. The legislation would create a standard process for handling all sexual assault cases in the institution.

Colleges failing to comply would face penalties, including fines of up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.

Other senators sponsoring the bill were: Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Republicans Dean Heller of Nevada, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

"To curb these crimes, students need to be protected and empowered, and institutions must provide the highest level of responsiveness in helping hold perpetrators fully accountable. That's what our legislation aims to accomplish," McCaskill said.

(Reporting by Elvina Nawaguna; Editing by Caren Bohan, Gunna Dickson and Lisa Shumaker)

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