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December 08, 2017

Proposal: Abolish the 'rape tax' at Pennsylvania colleges

A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to punish colleges and universities that fail to protect students who are sexually assaulted, forced to leave school because of the subsequent trauma and end up straddled with debt.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Reading, said Thursday he got the idea for his proposed legislation after reading an article in the December issue of Cosmopolitan.

The article details how rape victims usually end up paying thousands of dollars over their lifetimes in legal bills and lost productivity — an average of $122,461 over a survivor’s lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

For college students, that number often balloons even higher, as many take extended absences from their education because of social alienation, inability to focus on schoolwork and time spent handling the aftermath of an assault.

"Victims may want to take a leave from their school for six months, maybe even a year – because they don’t want to be near the perpetrator and they want to heal. But they may be in the middle or at the beginning of a semester and they can't get their tuition reimbursed," U.S. Rep Jackie Speier, D-California, who has worked with survivors of sexual assault, told Cosmo.

About 58 percent of college students who are sexually assaulted fail to graduate on time or at all, and 67 percent suffer from academic fallout, such as declining grades, according to a University of New Hampshire study cited in the article.

Erin Bergen, 23, told Cosmo she was sexually assaulted at a small Midwestern college her freshman year in 2014. She didn't file a complaint until she got involved in a survivors' group, and the process took such a toll on her she ended up dropping out, taking $11,000 of debt with her.

Bergen wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Now working as a nanny, she's not sure her dream career will ever be attainable.

"My financial future is up in the air," Bergen told the magazine. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to have the career I want."

Caltagirone hopes to prevent cases like Bergen's with a bill requiring Pennsylvania's colleges and universities to pay outstanding tuition and loans for students who withdraw from school because of they were raped or sexually assaulted on campus.

"Colleges and Universities in Pennsylvania have a duty to provide a safe environment for all students and if they fail there should be financial consequences to the institution," Caltagirone wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers.

The representative said after reading the article, he believes his colleagues need to be more aggressive in requiring colleges and universities protect their students.

"I believe it’s inhumane to victimize these students every time they receive a monthly student loan bill if they were not able to complete their degree because of an on-campus sexual assault or rape," he wrote.