Survivors testify about sexual assault on college campuses before Higher Ed Committee

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst student Nora Gallo and her father, UMass Amherst professor Peter Houlihan, testify before the Joint Committee on Higher Education at the Statehouse on Tuesday.  FOR THE GAZETTE/LILLIAN ILSLEY-GREENE

For the Gazette
Published: 4/10/2019 4:25:43 PM

BOSTON – Supporters lined the walls and spilled out the door of a Statehouse hearing room Tuesday as the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education took public testimony from advocates and survivors of sexual violence on eight bills concerning sexual misconduct and disciplinary procedures on college campuses.

The bills, if passed, would address a range of sexual assault issues, including requiring colleges to make public violent crime statistics, inform students of their rights and provide resources for student survivors.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, praised the decision to hold the hearing while colleges were still in session, allowing students to speak to the issues.

Domb spoke specifically about a bill, H 3655, that would require colleges to notify students of the options available to them when reporting sexual assault.

“We have to make sure that students know about it … so it's not like we're reacting to situations, we're letting people know, this is how we will react so that that sets the tone,” Domb said.

Domb said people who may want to make a report do not want to feel like they have to teach the college “what to do.” Rather, colleges should already be in a position to stand and support them. 

Two bills, H1208 and H1209, would require a sexual misconduct climate survey and the publication of those results. The bills had been brought in previous sessions, which ended before either could pass the Senate.

Those testifying Tuesday stressed the difference that kind of information could have made in many cases. State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, spoke about her experience with the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires college campuses to disclosure campus crime statistics.

The law came about as a result of the rape and murder of Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery in 1986. Ehrlich graduated from Lehigh and said that in the three years prior to Clery’s death, there had been 38 violent crimes on Lehigh’s campus that had not been made public.

University of Massachusetts Amherst student Nora Gallo testified with her father, UMass Amherst professor Peter Houlihan, about her experience as a victim of sexual harassment and assault on campus. Gallo said that had she been aware of the culture that she experienced at UMass, she would have gone to another school. 

Research has shown that between one in five women will be sexually assaulted within their lifetime and that sexual violence may occur at a higher rate at certain times of the year. According to statistics maintained by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November. In addition, students are at an increased risk during the first few months of their first and second semesters in college. 

“I was so excited for all the opportunities that were going to happen. I was so full of light and energy just ready for my future and so excited. I didn't apply anywhere else in January,” Gallo said of her acceptance at UMass. “... I didn’t know how bad it was.” 

Houlihan called the epidemic of sexual violence on campuses a “public health emergency.” If measles were spreading across the UMass campus, he said, something would be done. Delays in passing legislation only mean more victims, he said.

Gallo acts as team lead for the Every Voice Coalition at UMass, a group that aims to bring together advocates, survivors, and universities to fight sexual violence at Massachusetts colleges and universities. It was Every Voice that arranged Tuesday’s testimony.

“I've never spoken out in a setting similar to that about being sexually assaulted, and knowing that the first time that I would be able to share my story would be in support of two bills that would make survivors' lives easier and have a safer time at college,” Gallo said in an interview after testifying. “I think that that was definitely something that drove me to testify today.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said the testimony drove home the need for the bills to be passed immediately. This is the third hearing of this kind in three sessions.  

“Survivors saying one after the other, this would have helped me, had it been put into law before now, I could have been helped by this,” Comerford said. “I had just that realization of the weight on this particular session, and these particular bills, [the pressure] to get them right.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene writes for the Gazette from the Boston University State House Program.

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