Federal, state legislation aims to address sexual assault on college campuses

Allison Merola / The Tufts Daily

In an attempt to influence policies surrounding the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, various bills have been introduced throughout the past year in both national and state legislatures.

One such bill is H.R. 3403, also known as the Safe Campus Act of 2015, which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) on July 29. As stated in the bill, this piece of legislation seeks “[t]o amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to protect victims of sexual violence [and] to improve the adjudication of allegations related to sexual violence.”

One provision of the Safe Campus Act that would change the way that many campuses currently conduct sexual assault investigations would require students to report to law enforcement officials as a prerequisite for a campus investigation.

In a statement to the Daily, Tufts’ Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) expressed concern regarding this aspect of the Safe Campus Act.

“Our goal is to encourage reporting so that students get the resources and support they need, and we have some concern that the current proposal may discourage reporting,” the statement said. “In our experience, most complainants do not want to formally file a report so as a practical matter the issue of due process during a formal investigation doesn’t come up. However, when a complaint is filed, we provide a fair, equitable process for all parties.”

The Safe Campus Act would also ensure due process for both individuals and campus organizations in campus proceedings. Both parties would be guaranteed the right to an attorney at their own expense.

While some are concerned that this provision unduly protects fraternities, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, state representative for the third Berkshire district of Pittsfield, Mass., expressed the need for due process in campus proceedings.

“[Campus organizations such as fraternities] need to be held accountable, but you can’t say that you’re going to hold somebody accountable without being fair about it,” she said.

According to OEO, Tufts already has due process provisions in place for students involved in sexual assault cases.

“We have strong due process protections for the complainant and the respondent at every juncture, and attorneys are allowed in the process,” the OEO stated. “We also notify the complainants that they can file with law enforcement if they wish.”

According to Farley-Bouvier, the Safe Campus Act has goals similar to that of Massachusetts House Bill H.1041, which is titled “An Act concerning sexual violence on higher education campuses. Sponsored by Farley-Bouvier and State Representative Daniel Donahue of Worcester, H.1041 shares several provisions with the national Safe Campus Act, while also including some of its own unique additions.

Farley-Bouvier explained that there is a need for state legislation in addition to federal legislation.

“So little gets done in Congress that we didn’t want to wait to see what they were going to do [regarding campus sexual assault] and if they were going to be able to get it done,” Farley-Bouvier said. “And so that’s why we went ahead and filed [H.1041] in the Commonwealth.

According to Christine Barber, a co-sponsor of H.1041 the representative for the 34th Middlesex district — which includes parts of Medford and Somerville — passing H.1041 would create a new position of Public Safety Officer at the state board of higher education to review campus safety policies across the Commonwealth. It would also require all colleges and universities to post information on their websites and make resources available about services for survivors of sexual assault. Additionally, schools would have to provide information and training around sexual violence for both students and employees on campus.

Barber explained that H.1041 is a complement to Title IX, the federal civil rights law which outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex in all federally-funded educational programs and activities. State legislation helps provide guidelines for all universities in Massachusetts to follow, Barber said.

“[T]here [have] been some recent guidelines that pushed Title IX to require schools to take immediate steps to respond to sexual violence on campus, and…campuses are trying to update their policies to be in compliance,” she said. “So this legislation [H.1041] is trying to help them come up with procedures…to make sure that all of our universities [and] colleges…have strong protocols…to deal with sexual violence on campus.”

While state legislation often only applies to public institutions, Farley-Bouvier expressed the need for this particular legislation to apply to all colleges and universities, public or private.

“I want to be sure that wherever somebody goes to college in Massachusetts,…they’re held to the same standard,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I…have a particular concern…with the private colleges, because generally laws that we pass are around public colleges, but…we want to make sure that [these laws]…apply to private colleges, because I’m concerned that [private] colleges are more worried about protecting their brand than protecting their students.”

H.1041 was heard before the Joint Committee on Higher Education in June. After coming out of committee, the bill will be heard in both the Massachusetts House and the Senate, according to Farley-Bouvier.

The U.S. Senate has also seen the introduction of bills surrounding campus sexual assault. In February, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who strongly opposes the Safe Campus Act, introduced S.590, also known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. If enacted, this bill would require institutions of higher education that participate in Title IV and student assistance programs to include data on sexual assault in their annual campus security reports.

The need to acquire data surrounding sexual assault on college campuses is also reflected in Massachusetts State Bill S.650, which is titled “An Act creating a sexual assault climate survey for Massachusetts colleges and universities.” Sponsored by State Senator William Brownsberger of Belmont and State Representative Lori Ehrlich of Essex in April, this bill, if enacted, would create a task force that would design a sexual assault climate survey to be administered by all Massachusetts colleges and universities, and would mandate that each college and university produce a report on its findings.

Having a survey that is streamlined across the board would allow for more accurate comparisons between schools, Farley-Bouvier said.

“If a consumer, in other words a family looking at a college, can be able to see what the what the [survey] results are from one college to the next…we’re able to compare,” she said. “[W]e compare colleges in all different ways, right? … We should be able to compare them on…how safe they are [too].”

Barber explained that a streamlined sexual assault survey is an issue not only of campus safety but of community safety.

“Obviously Tufts students are part of our communities in Somerville and Medford and we want to ensure that our communities are safe, so having information about sexual violence and making sure that we know what’s happening helps to keep the whole community safe, for Tufts students and for all residents,” Barber said. “And of course Tufts is part of our community, it’s very ingrained in…Somerville and Medford, so it’s especially critical for that kind of campus.”

Having a survey may also help to more accurately gauge the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, something that often goes unreported, Barber added.

“We know across the country that sexual violence is often not reported and survivors may feel stigma or not get the help that they need, so this is another way of starting to address those issues and ensure that women feel safe on their campuses,” she said.

Farley-Bouvier also mentioned that such a survey would jumpstart the conversation about sexual assault among different colleges and allow them to learn from one another in terms of how to better address it.

Barber explained that state legislators have been part of conversations at the Massachusetts State House about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses through briefings from faculty at Massachusetts colleges, as well as through a screening of a documentary about campus sexual assault called “The Hunting Ground.” She hopes that this awareness can translate into policy change.

“I think there’s been a lot more awareness brought to this issue in the past year, which is great,” Barber said. “[T]his is gonna be an uphill climb to pass all of these pieces, but I’m hopeful that we can at least take some things in [H.1041] to start to have more procedures at the campus level and help colleges and universities come up with ways to address [sexual assault].”

Farley-Bouvier acknowledged that there is still more to do in terms of raising awareness around issues of sexual assault on college campuses.

“We’re responding to what’s happening out there, something that’s been happening I think for a long time, but I’m hoping too that [the introduction of these bills] raises the level of conversation,” she said. “So we are now more aware of [campus sexual assault] because [of]…good reporting and victims…coming together and being terrific advocates, but now we as legislators need to [increase the] level of awareness in our communities also and…bring the discussion to a policy level.”