Columnist Lindsay Sabadosa: Shining a light on sexual assault

Published: 1/17/2020 7:01:07 PM
Modified: 1/17/2020 7:00:12 PM

Joint Rule 10. This is the rule that sets the date by which committees must vote on legislation. Committees can vote to report legislation out favorably, adversely, or send it to study (aka bill death), and, while often extended, Joint Rule 10 sets that date as the first Wednesday in February.

This year, that date is Feb. 5, which is a little more than two weeks away.

This fact has led me to ponder what the rest of our legislative calendar will look like. Formal session ends for the second annual session of the 191st General Court on July 31 and, since we know that the fiscal 2021 budget will take up several weeks of our remaining months, the pressure is on to support and advance bills that are important to the commonwealth and its residents.

Personally, I have a list of legislation that I would love to see passed this session: the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow people to obtain driver’s licenses irrespective of their immigration status; the ROE Act, which would protect reproductive freedoms and expand access to abortion care by eliminating barriers; and An Act to Promote Green Infrastructure and Reduce Carbon Emissions, which would put a price on carbon, invest in transportation and return money to low income and environmental justice communities to make sure the burden of fighting the climate emergency is equitably distributed.

Other wishlist bills include legislation to tackle the student debt crisis and wage theft legislation to protect our workers.

There is another bill, though, that I have focused my attention on and that I hope will be on our docket this session: An act requiring sexual misconduct climate surveys at institutions of higher education, more informally known as The Climate Survey Bill.

This legislation would create a 21-member task force, which would be overseen by the Commissioner on Higher Education, made up of students, community college and public university representatives, a representative from the Association of Independent Colleges and the Universities of Massachusetts, and representatives from sexual assault prevention and advocacy groups.

The task force would draft a standard climate survey that would be distributed at every college in the state so, every two years, students and survivors could answer questions and provide feedback about the prevalence of and response to sexual assault on campus. The aggregate survey data would then be made public.

I think of this bill often as I drive around the Pioneer Valley, home to numerous colleges and thousands of students. It rattles around in my brain as I walk past Smith College when classes are getting out and I think about the lives and experiences of the students that fill the sidewalks.

It is especially poignant for me when I think of all the interns who have passed through my office over the last year, mostly from Mount Holyoke College thanks to its paid internship program (because work deserves to be paid), and many of whom are part of the Every Voice Coalition, which has been fighting for this bill.

There are some who would say that Massachusetts shouldn’t pass this bill unless other states do the same, and that parents might be fearful of sending their kids to school if they knew that a particular college had more reported assaults than another or that students don’t always feel safe on campus.

As a parent, I reject that idea. Knowledge is power, and I would rather send my child to a school that had a climate survey and that actively focused on empowering students and preventing assault. There are statistics that say that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted, with higher rates for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming communities, but those numbers are the tip of the iceberg since many survivors never report.

To parent in 2020 means to know that you have to prepare your child for not if but when something might happen, and having a climate survey so that they know what other students are feeling and can see how colleges are using that feedback to implement effective policy is powerful.

At a recent forum, I asked students from many different colleges how many of them had experienced sexual harassment or assault while on campus or knew someone who had. Many hands were raised. If I had asked that same question 20 years ago when I graduated college, a lot of hands would have gone up too, although I wonder if there would have been fewer, not because assault was less prevalent but because people might not have felt as safe as they do now to even acknowledge the problem.

That is the benefit of the #metoo movement. We are getting better at talking about things that make us uncomfortable because if we don’t address them head on, nothing changes.

So let me be clear. Sexual assault is happening; it’s up to us to decide whether we want to keep it in the shadows or shine a light on it so that we can start to do something about it. I say we shine the light, and the brighter, the better.

Lindsay Sabadosa is a Northampton resident and the state representative for the 1st Hampshire District. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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