BOSTON – The Massachusetts State Senate took action to prevent sexual violence on college campuses by passing comprehensive legislation to establish state-level policies for all higher education institutions in the Commonwealth.
The bill, filed by Senator Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury) who serves as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, reflects a collaborative approach by college officials, advocacy groups, students and policymakers to address the issue of on-campus sexual assaults.
With the U.S. Department of Education’s recent revocation of the Obama Administration’s 2011 guidance on college sexual assault, the legislation ensures that fair procedures and appropriate services are in place at higher education institutions across Massachusetts for both the reporting party and the accused.
According to the 2015 climate survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, 23% of female undergraduate student respondents reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force or incapacitation. Despite these statistics, 95% to 72% of these incidents of sexual violence went unreported. This legislation aims to encourage more students to come forward by ensuring that fair procedures and appropriate services are in place not only for the reporting party but also the accused.
“As a legislator, and as a father, I recognize that there is more we should be doing to help prevent incidents of sexual assault on our college campuses,” said Senator Moore. “Through improved training, transparency and enforcement of policies, this bill supports initiatives that work to ensure our postsecondary institutions are implementing systems students can trust. The bill also helps to fill the void created by the recent rollback of Federal protections.”
“While many institutions of higher education have made strides in addressing the critical issue of sexual violence in recent years, there is still much work to be done,” said Debra J. Robbin, Executive Director of Jane Doe Inc. “The recent rollback of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter makes it clearer than ever that Massachusetts must ensure that students have access to appropriate responses and processes when sexual assault occurs, but also that institutions are implementing critical training, education and prevention strategies to reduce sexual violence. S.2191 is an important step to ensure that all students in the Commonwealth are able to fully access their right to higher education.”
This bill requires all students and staff to receive mandatory annual sexual violence prevention and awareness programming as well as be notified, via email and on the school website, of the campus policies including information on the resources available to sexual assault victims both on and off-campus and of the rights of the accused and the alleged victim.
To help decrease the barriers that discourage students from reporting sexual violence, the bill also requires schools to designate a confidential resource advisor. When requested by the reporting party, the confidential resource advisor shall provide information on reporting options along with the consequences of each of the options, available counseling and medical services, and coordinate with the schools to arrange academic accommodations and interim measures, such as changing dorms.
Because the lack of training of campus staff involved in sexual assault investigations can lead to negative results and experiences for the accused and victims, this legislation requires that the staff responsible for participating in disciplinary proceedings will receive appropriate training to make sure they are knowledgeable about how to best approach these incidents.
Moreover, in an effort to promote increased coordination with outside resources and services, the bill requires schools to establish a memorandum of understanding with sexual assault crisis centers, as well as develop policies and procedures with local law enforcement that comply with all applicable confidentiality and privacy laws. The bill would also establish a campus safety advisor at the Department of Higher Education to advance state-wide campus safety initiatives.
In 2016, the Department of Higher Education conducted a comprehensive study of on-campus safety and violence. The report provides many recommendations that further justify provisions of this legislation.
The legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously, has now been referred to the House of Representatives for consideration. To continue tracking the bill, S.2191, please visit the Legislature’s website, www.malegislature.gov.