Sexual violence bill aims to strengthen protections at colleges

Bill would require colleges to track how they handle allegations

BOSTON (State House News Service) – With an eye on Washington, the Massachusetts Senate on Monday gave initial approval to a bill that would cement Title IX statutes in Massachusetts and take protections for college students who are victims of sexual violence a step further.

The bill, S 2081, would require a public or private higher education institution to include procedures to report or disclose an incident of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking as part of its campus security policy, and track how those allegations are handled. Sen. Michael Moore is a sponsor of the bill, which would cost up to $1 million to implement.

Moore suggested the bill could protect Massachusetts in the event of changes in federal policies.

“There are a lot of philosophical changes in how regulations are being applied and federally this is one area they talk about looking at. We don’t know what could happen with regulations as far as Title IX goes and by passing this we would be able to codify protections students currently have and enhance them,” Moore said.

One in five undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault in the United States, and a majority of female student victims do not report those crimes, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos signaled this month that she’d revisit sexual assault policies put in place under President Barack Obama to see if they deprive accused students of rights, the New York Times New York Times reported. A system “without due process ultimately serves no one,” she said, while adding she does not want to sweep victims’ allegations under the rug.

Moore’s bill would require schools to provide students with information on the number of allegations of sexual violence on campus, their rights, and where to receive emergency assistance and support services. It was reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Higher Education and referred to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means in June. The Senate advanced the bill after the Ways and Means Committee reported it favorably on Monday.

The bill has bipartisan support that includes the backing of Sens. Jamie Eldridge, Michael Rush, Jason Lewis, Sal DiDomenico, Eric Lesser, James Timilty, Eileen Donoghue, Joan Lovely, Anne Gobi, William Brownsberger and Barbara L’Italien and Reps. Geoff Diehl, Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Timothy Whelan.

College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as they are to be robbed, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization. Among undergraduate students, 23 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience sexual assault crimes. The risk is highest at the beginning of the school year, the organization reports. More than half of college sexual assaults occur in August, September, October or November.

Moore, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, said he was surprised to learn from concerned students several years ago that allegations of sexual assault were sometimes handled internally by disciplinary boards at colleges and universities.

“We fear students are being directed to handle things administratively and not pursue the legal aspect of sexual assault, or schools were trying to conceal these types of crimes on their campuses,” Moore said. “Why would sexual assault be going through an administrative board when it is something law enforcement would be involved in? We don’t have anything right now requiring schools to report how many sexual assaults are on campus. Clery requires they report crimes, but nothing mandates how they were handled.”

The Jeanne Clery Act is a federal statute that requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to release a security report to employees and students every fall that includes statistics of campus crime including sexual assault.

“We also go further with this and require schools to provide training and educational programs coming into freshman year. They also have to provide training to employees and staff,” Moore said. Some universities already do such training. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a studuent-run theater troupe called the Not Ready for Bedtime Players performs educational comedy skits about the university’s sexual assault policies, among other topics, at orientation for first-year students.

Moore said the bill aims to implement the recommendations of a 2016 report from the state Board of Higher Education regarding campus safety and violence prevention.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter and she’s going to be a junior next year in school. When she starts going and touring colleges and universities she’s going to start looking at some in Massachusetts. I want know the type of environment she’s going to be going to, where she’s going to be living. I want to know if its a safe community,” Moore said.

The sexual violence bill made it through the Senate last July at the end of formal sessions. The bill could emerge on Wednesday for a vote that would send it to the House, though Moore said it is not likely because the Senate Committee on Bills in the Third Reading will take some time to ensure the bill is “thoroughly vetted with no conflicts.”

“This is a good piece of legislation. Together we can accomplish what we want for students,” Moore said. “We’re hoping the Senate does pass this and that the House endorses it, too.”