Students rally at Massachusetts State House in support of two sexual assault prevention bills

The Massachusetts Statehouse is pictured on October 24, 2012. Via Wikimedia Commons
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Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.

Students from Tufts joined students from 25 other colleges at the Massachusetts State House yesterday to show support for two sexual assault prevention bills, H.4159 and S.2203, and for stopping the “silent epidemic,” according to Bailey Siber, an executive board member of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP)Siber is also part of Every Voice Coalition, the Massachusetts-based group of students, advocates and colleges that organized the rally.

“We [at the Every Voice Coalition] were the ones that organized this rally day, by getting into contact with other … schools in Massachusetts, a combination of community colleges, public universities and colleges and private ones as well, and encouraging folks from all of those different higher education places to come to the State House and … rally together to listen to representatives speak about the bill, listen to survivors share about their experiences and then to actually meet in small groups with various representatives to advocate for the bill being passed,” Siber, a senior, said.

Siber explained that the students who founded Every Voice Coalition wrote H.4159, the Campus Climate Survey bill.

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“[Work on the bills has] been going on for a few years but definitely with the #MeToo movement and … more conversation on and off campuses there’s more awareness and more knowledge and more interest in engaging with this issue,” Siber said.

The H.4159 bill is especially important because it could make rates of sexual violence easier to compare across Massachusetts colleges, Erin Viola, a sophomore on the executive board of Tufts ASAP, explained.

“There’s huge, huge discrepancies between [Tufts’] … climate survey and the one at MIT,” she said. “There’s no way to compare data from Tufts to data from MIT, so that’s why we care about this bill,” Viola said.

Viola added that Tufts ASAP is attempting to involve University President Anthony Monaco in the conversation around sexual violence at Tufts.

“We’ve reached out to President Monaco to publicly endorse the bill and we haven’t really gotten a response yet,” she said.

Viola also said that fewer than 10 percent of Massachusetts colleges have climate surveys. According to Siber, only 26 out of 114 schools issue recurring surveys and publish data on sexual violence.

“A lot of those surveys are not really meeting the gold standard that they should, in the way that they’re not trauma sensitive, they’re not culturally competent, they’re not getting at the various unique experiences that a survivor or an individual might face on a college or a university campus depending on if they’re queer or in the LGBTQ community, if they’re of color, if they’re undocumented, if English isn’t their first language,” Siber said.

Siber explained that S.2203, the second bill under review at the State House, goes hand-in-hand with H.4159.

“The hope is that the H.4159 bill would increase schools’ access to information, and then S.2203 would … enforce guidelines and policies at every school that makes their response and prevention processes better,” Siber said.

Viola explained that the group received funding from the Center for Awareness, Resources and Education (CARE) office for Tufts students to attend the event.

“I definitely think that any money that Tufts can give us … makes it way more accessible for people to get all the way downtown,” Viola said.

Leann Beard, a senior who attended the rally, voiced her support for the rally and said it was a learning experience.

“As great as what we’re doing at Tufts … there is so much work to be done on every college campus, and in some ways we can organize around that [because] unfortunately, the problem with sexual violence is not at all contained to Tufts, so going to that [rally] really brought my attention to how widespread this was,” Beard said.

Beard felt that the rally was so powerful because it highlighted a personal issue for Tufts students.

“It was really amazing to be connected to people who were talking about something that’s affecting pretty much everyone, because everyone in some way is touched by sexual violence, whether it occurred in their life or to somebody they loved or care about or know … It was really, really powerful to be there,” she said.

Megan Warshawsky, a senior, said the rally was powerful, adding that people from many backgrounds attended.

“[Attendees] definitely spanned working professionals to students to non-profit workers. I think it strengthened the whole event in general, because some people shared their personal stories. Others shared statistics, and I thought that the conglomeration of all of that together gave a greater view on all of the different impacts on what this bill could do, whether that be socially, politically, physically on a campus. I do think it was really powerful to have all of them there,” Warshawsky said.

She explained that she heard about the event on Facebook and wanted to attend, as it was a very important and personal issue for her and many other students.

“It’s a topic that I personally am passionate about, and I have many friends who have been affected by sexual violence,” Warshawsky said.

Beard attributed the event and its success to Tufts ASAP and its dedication to working to improve conditions on campus and beyond.

“[It’s] super powerful and amazing work done by the Tufts ASAP organization. [The rally] highlights how much amazing work ASAP at Tufts is doing to connect us to a larger conversation and the countless hours they put into it. [It’s] also the broader campuses and organizations of the Boston Area, and I was really moved and humbled to be there,” Beard said.

She described how the rally helped put the issue of sexual violence in perspective.

“When we’re talking about the things that occur at Tufts, it’s sometimes hard to hold a big picture perspective and be like, ‘Wow … the things I’m talking about with my Tufts peers are things that people are talking about everywhere’… We do have a lot of power if we recognize how these shared experiences connect us and how we can rally around them and organize,” Beard said.

Beard emphasized the importance of including diverse voices in the call for stopping sexual violence.

“[Everyone is] organizing around that [common cause of sexual violence] and taking advantage of the power we have right now and remembering to include voices that don’t get to be in charge of the organizing, who might not be able to lead rallies because of disability or opportunities that are only afforded to cis, heterosexual, white women. ‘Who gets to be the face of sexual violence?’ [and] taking advantage of the power we have now and lending it to others were two things that were really on my mind leaving this rally,” she said.

Siber and Warshawsky both stated that the bills are important because they will promote greater openness and conversation, as well as generate a larger body of data to demonstrate how widespread sexual violence is.

“I think it’s important to keep talking about sexual violence and how it does happen here and so many of us are affected by it, whether it be personally [significant] or … [you] have loved ones and friends who are affected by it,” Warshawsky said.

Siber stated that a great benefit of the bills are that they would promote a higher quality of surveys for sexual violence and improve anonymous reporting. She said that through the bill, Every Voice Coalition is calling for a statewide task force, made up of various federal and local administrative bodies and activists, to create a model survey by summer 2018. Siber said they hope the survey is implemented in the next academic year.

“It would enforce all community, public and private colleges and universities to meet a certain standard for a survey, issue it periodically — we’re shooting for every 3 years — and have their data published,” Siber said.

Siber said the survey created by this task force would serve as a standard that schools could use, adapt or mimic, as long as the task force approved new surveys as equivalent.

“There’s always going to be under-reporting [of incidences of sexual violence], but hopefully these anonymous surveys will increase reporting rates so that there is increased transparency and increased knowledge about what is often termed ‘the silent epidemic,'” Siber said.

The goal of the event, Siber said, was to give voice to those who do not feel protected by current legislation.

“The people who should be defining safety are the ones who don’t feel safe, whether that’s survivors, whether that’s students of color, whether that’s students in the LGBTQ community, undocumented, first-gen, low-income, of varying levels of ability,” Siber said, referencing the words of Massachusetts Representative Byron Rushing. “Those are the people who should be empowered to define what safety means to them and the leaders and the representatives should be working and striving to make that happen. Not only is this an intersectional issue, but an issue that should always and consistently be listening to the voices of those who don’t feel safe.”

Noah Richter contributed reporting to this article.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that the task force will not be nationwide, but will serve the Massachusetts Commonwealth. The Daily regrets this error.

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