Senate bill aims to curb campus sex assaults

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus Courtesy photo

@DHGCrosby
Published: 8/2/2016 11:04:38 PM

The state Senate is shining a light on sexual violence at college campuses with new legislation designed to curb it at many levels.

Filed by Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, the proposed bill passed the Senate unanimously Thursday and now awaits consideration from the House. If passed, the new state-level policies would serve to complement federal requirements already in place.

Moore called sexual violence “an egregious and horrible thing that students should not have to deal with.”

But, he said, colleges should be fully equipped and responsible for providing all necessary resources to those who become victims of sexual assault.

Areas of focus within the legislation include improved education and training, transparency and enforcement of policies and confidentiality measures to support and protect students.

In a July 30 statement, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said “students who attend Massachusetts colleges and universities should be assured that their campus provides a safe, open and caring environment.”

This legislation, he said, provides the tools to help do that.

One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resources Center. Their statistics show that, as of last month, the center reports 246 open sexual assault cases under federal investigation at 195 postsecondary institutions across America. Despite these numbers, an estimated 90 percent of students do not report these incidents, the center said.

Speaking Tuesday, Moore stressed the importance of having a system students can trust.

He referred to the many pieces of the legislation as “interrelated,” because each part works in conjunction with the next.

What the bill does

In addition to mandatory sexual violence prevention and awareness programming, students and staff under the bill must be notified regarding policies and the resources available to them. A confidential resource adviser must be made available to serve as a liaison for students, providing information, reporting options and the consequences of those options. The adviser would also serve to coordinate protective measures for victims with the school, such as educational and housing accommodations.

Language in the bill also requires schools to develop relationships with local sexual assault crisis centers and law enforcement in order to provide off-campus options for dealing with sexual violence.

A campus safety adviser at the Department of Higher Education would work to advance these statewide initiatives.

Implementation

Diana Sutton-Fernandez, who works as chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator for Hampshire College, said she is thrilled to see Massachusetts taking sexual violence seriously.

The bill, she said, is a testament to that.

“We have historically come from a culture that has really not supported survivors in a way that now the federal government is asking us to do,” she said.

But while Sutton-Fernandez said new state legislation would help to increase awareness, the college already “has a robust set of policies and procedures.”

“As I was reading it, I kept noting that a lot of what they’re asking us to do — we’ve already made great effort toward,” she said.

The biggest job for Hampshire College, as identified by Sutton-Fernandez, is familiarizing students with the resources that are available to them.

All incoming students already receive mandatory education through intentional workshops around consent and sexual violence during the orientation process, she said. Over the course of the year, more workshops are offered relating to bystander intervention, healthy sexual relationships, impacts of drugs and alcohol and sexual and dating violence.

Similarly, spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the University of Massachusetts Amherst has done a lot on the topic of sexual assault in recent years. He said many resources are outlined at umass.edu/umatter, but declined to comment on the legislation until further reviewing the material.

“Sexual violence is a difficult problem here and across the country,” he said. “It’s an issue to really keep working on and we are always open to improving.”

The Northwestern district attorney’s office also declined to comment until it had reviewed the bill.

Since the Legislature adjourned Sunday, the House will most likely not take up the bill until next year.

Prevention

Moore said Tuesday that if student education regarding sexual violence is taking place, “it is obviously not happening in a degree that is preventing these situations.”

He hopes the new legislative will serve to reduce barriers that discourage students from reporting sexual violence.

“It Happened Here,” a recent documentary by film producer Marjorie Nielsen highlighting abuse and rape on college campuses, involves former Amherst College student Angie Epifano. In 2012 Epifano wrote a letter revealing she’d been raped on campus.

Her letter, which ran in the student newspaper, alleged that “following her rape the college was not supportive and compelled her to sign herself into a psychiatric ward,” according to a February 2015 article in the Gazette.

Amanda Collings Vann, who is the sexual respect educator and deputy Title IX coordinator at Amherst College, said she was hired in response to changes implemented after the letter was published. Many of those changes were in the works prior to the letter, she said.

Since then, Amherst College has also hired a full-time Title IX coordinator. Collings Vann said faculty and staff have received extensive training regarding their responsibilities in supporting students through sexual violence and significant numbers of students have been trained in bystander intervention, including all incoming classes — all of whom also must participate in a presentation on consent, stalking and appropriate communication.

Peer educators have looked and will continue to look at the cultural pieces that contribute to the sexual violence epidemic, Collings Vann said, including street harassment, media, and how masculinity is defined.

New this year, banners reinforcing these messages will be placed in all first-year residences.

“I have a lot of faith in the ability of prevention to do what it’s supposed to do,” Collings Vann said.

UMass and Amherst College were among more than 100 colleges and universities named in a federal investigation of possible Title IX violations over their handling of sexual assault complaints. The Department of Education probe, launched in May 2014, is still open for both schools.

Although the proposed state legislation is wonderful, Collings Vann said, “we really need to start this work much earlier.”

She believes the problem begins in how children are socialized. Increased elementary to high school education would go a long way, she said.

“If we really want to look at ending the problem of sexual violence, we need to look earlier,” she said.

Amherst College students are now encouraged to take strong stances against sexual violence both on campus and when they leave, Collings Vann said. Another piece of the solution lies in teaching students to leverage their positions in whatever role they take on after college, in order to effect change, she said.

“Everyone needs to be a part of this movement.”

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com.


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