Tufts alum assists in effort to pass Massachusetts bill surveying sexual assault climate on campuses

Massachusetts colleges may soon be required to conduct campus sexual assault climate surveys. This is partially due to the work of students and recent graduates from the Boston area such as Katrina Dzyak (LA ’16), who have worked since 2014 to pass a Massachusetts Senate Bill, Resolve Senate Bill 2471.

S.2471 is defined as “An Act creating a sexual assault climate survey for Massachusetts colleges and universities.” Sponsored by state Sen. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), the bill passed through the state Senate in July. 

The bill calls for the creation of a sexual assault climate survey to be sent to students attending both public and private universities in Massachusetts as well as the establishment of a task force at each school. This task force would include representatives from different state institutions, students and members of community-based sexual assault crisis service centers, among other organizations and individuals, according to the bill’s text.

The bill was jointly drafted by members of the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) and the office of Brownsberger, according to John Gabrieli, a spring 2016 graduate of Harvard University who led the student campaign for the bill through the IOP. 

Gabrieli said Brownsberger had commissioned some members of the IOP in 2014 to conduct research on what Massachusetts could do to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

“[Brownsberger] has been working on issues around sexual assault in Massachusetts, and he wanted to make sure that college students had their voices represented in that conversation,” Gabrieli said. “He did a really good job of empowering students to be leaders on this issue.”

The IOP worked with the bill sponsors to draw upon ideas from many different colleges, including Tufts, to address issues related to sexual assault on campuses.

For Dzyak, working with students at other schools underscored the fact that change can and should be accomplished through collaboration.

“It’s very easy to think that your institution is the only institution dealing with this problem,” Dzyak said. “To see that there are other students campaigning the way I did … was inspiring for me and also re-established the reality of this issue.”

As part of her efforts, Dzyak spoke on behalf of the Tufts community before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education in June 2015, when she explained how the bill was partly inspired by Tufts’ successful implementation of the Tufts Attitudes About Sexual Conduct Survey (TASCS) in April 2015.

“I … touched upon how Tufts had already established a survey and seen really successful results from it,” she said. “Having the opportunity to speak about this issue in such an official way was … very satisfying.”

The bill, which Gabrieli said builds upon proposals from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, also incorporated ideas from other campus sexual assault prevention activists across Massachusetts.

“We [spoke] to almost 20 different colleges and universities across Massachusetts,” Gabrieli said. “It’s an issue that is important for so many college students that we felt that it was really important that our findings reflected [their] views.”

While drafting the bill, Gabrieli said he struggled with striking a balance between a standardized questionnaire and respecting colleges’ and universities’ autonomy to create their own survey questions.

“You don’t want to prevent universities from adding their own questions or modifying the questionnaire in campus-specific ways,” he said. “We have to find a balance between giving colleges flexibility and having a uniform standard that is unbiased and comparable across campuses.”

Brownsberger explained the significant impact students had in pushing the legislation forward.

“Student energy can be very helpful,” He told the Daily in an email. “[The students] did homework and we finalized the legislation.” 

Dzyak said she had been interested in addressing campus sexual assault since her first year at Tufts, when she contributed to an April 2013 open letter written by members of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention that called on the Tufts administration to implement new initiatives for preventing and responding to sexual violence on campus.

As a result of this involvement, she was later invited to join Tufts’ Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force, started by University President Anthony Monaco in May 2013. Having heard through a mutual friend about Dzyak’s involvement with the task force at Tufts, Gabrieli reached out to her about assisting with the bill. 

Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) Jill Zellmer explained that while the bill is important, it will not significantly affect Tufts, seeing as the university is already planning to conduct a second TASCS in early spring 2017.

Zellmer pointed to Dzyak as having played an important role in the development of TASCS.

“[Dzyak] was a key figure in supporting our first [TASCS],” she told the Daily in an email. “She helped review the questions … and solicited other support and feedback from students about its implementation and roll out.”

Serving as co-chair of the task force’s policy and procedures working group from 2013 to 2016, Dzyak said that she and her team revised the university’s existing sexual misconduct policy and worked to create new online resources about the policy changes for students.

She added that being on the task force at Tufts gave her the necessary experience to campaign on the Senate floor for the bill, as it married her passion for sexual assault prevention with the capacity to achieve real legislative change.

“Having an understanding of what is required and what is feasible for institutions allowed me to really support this bill,” she said.

Dzyak and Gabrieli both emphasized the importance of having schools survey students about sexual assault, especially as a way to address the under-reporting of sexual assault on campuses throughout the country. 

According to the results of the TASCS report, 81 percent of respondents who experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse at Tufts did not file an official report with the OEO.  Gabrieli said that universities often lack the information they need to create effective tools to tackle this issue.

“There are a lot of programs that … different schools have tried and different states have implemented, but because there’s no data being collected systematically about sexual assault on college campuses, no one really knows what’s working and what’s not,” he said.

Dzyak elaborated on the importance of gathering data to create change.

“A survey is a very feasible way of beginning to respond to this issue,” she said. “It is easily accomplishable … and [the bill] is going to help institutions get their foot in the door in solving this problem.”

According to Gabrieli, after having passed in the Senate, the bill was not put to a vote in the House before its formal legislative sessions ended in July. If it is passed by the House during its informal sessions, which run until January, it will then be signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker, pending a confirmation vote. 

“We are working right now with [College Democrats of Massachusetts] and other groups to try to get behind an advocacy campaign to get students’ attention on this issue and to urge the House to take action on this,” he said.

Challenges notwithstanding, both Dzyak and Gabrieli think the bill is a step in the right direction toward preventing sexual assault and sexual violence on campus, particularly when it comes to holding higher education institutions accountable for sexual assault prevention and responses.

“Sexual assault … tends to get brushed under the rug … because of under-reporting,” Gabrieli said. “Unfortunately, it is advantageous in many cases to downplay the issue because colleges want to maintain their reputation, so it’s important to have transparency for the public, for that information to be available to them.”

Dzyak said she feels optimistic that, if the bill passes through the House, it will provide colleges and universities with concrete information upon which they can build and improve.

“Universities will have a lot more information to respond to, and that information will help institutions understand where this problem really occurs – in which student groups, which year, which time of the year,” Dzyak said. “This is a wonderful step forward.”