September 13, 2015

Bill proposes new guidelines for colleges' handling of sex offenses

9-12-15 Massachusetts:

A new bill being pushed by Central Massachusetts lawmakers proposes a slew of new guidelines governing how colleges handle sexual offenses on their campuses.

The two pieces of legislation – the Senate version was filed by state Sen. Michael O. Moore of Millbury and the House version by state representatives Daniel M. Donahue of Worcester and Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield – build off of existing federal laws governing how higher education institutions address sexual assaults. But the state’s law would go even further, requiring colleges to provide additional educational and victim support services, more closely coordinate with local law enforcement and rape crisis agencies, and better delineate to students their rights in sexual violence cases.

“Many schools already have a lot of the services we’re trying to mandate,” said Mr. Moore, a Democrat, but the point of his and the other lawmakers’ bills is to ensure there is a uniform standard for all colleges in the state.

Other states, including New York and California, have already done so, he added; the proposed Massachusetts bills are based partly on their laws.

Mr. Moore said he and his staff began working on his bill a year ago, after the Joint Committee on Higher Education, of which he is the Senate chairman, heard testimony from college students about some of the inadequacies of their schools’ processes for dealing with sex offense allegations. He said he was concerned to hear, for example, that some colleges didn’t allow students – both the alleged victim and perpetrator – to have a representative with them at hearings.

The new legislation would give students the right to have an advisor of their choice attend with them. It also prescribes a range of other services to be provided on college campuses, including:

- Mandatory sexual violence training for staff and students;

- A confidential system in which victims can discreetly report an assault to a trained advisor;

- And clear communication of the school’s sex offense policy as well as information and resources available to victims.

In addition, the bill would require colleges to form agreements with local rape crisis services, domestic violence prevention organizations, and law enforcement agencies, to help the schools more capably conduct investigations as well as provide support to victims.

“(Campus sexual assault) is a complicated issue, and this is a big bill, an extensive bill,” said Mr. Donahue, who added lawmakers are still working on the language.

“This is probably one of the most vetted bills I’ve worked on,” said Mr. Moore, “we’ve had many versions, many redrafts.”

Much of that reworking was based on input lawmakers solicited from colleges, college associations, and social agencies. Kim L. Dawkins, executive director of Pathways for Chance, a rape crisis center in Worcester serving Central Massachusetts, said she was glad they reached out to organizations like hers, “because they’re the ones working with (sexual assault) survivors.”

“I was very grateful for that opportunity to sit with (Sen. Moore) and talk about the bill,” she said, adding she believes the legislation represents an “admirable” new effort to address an old problem in higher education.

Ms. Dawkins said it’s difficult to judge how well colleges as a whole are doing in the area of sexual assault; federally required campus crime reports show forcible sex assaults vary widely in the Worcester area, for example. That’s not necessarily a reflection of how often rapes are occurring, however, but possibly a sign that some colleges are fostering an environment where students feel more comfortable reporting incidents, she said.

“They’re not trying to pretend it doesn’t exist,” Ms. Dawkins said, which she sees as progress towards more the challenging task of changing societal attitudes about sexual assault. “It’s a much bigger issue (than colleges), that needs a lot of attention.”

Local colleges contacted Friday said they’re still reviewing the new bills, but expressed support for the Legislature’s attempt to address the issue.

“The safety and well-being of our students is our highest priority,” said Cristal Steuer, a spokeswoman for Holy Cross. “We support efforts to ensure that colleges provide safe environments conducive to learning and growth.”

Assumption College also “applauds efforts to address this matter and looks forward to working with the legislature and other institutions of higher learning to address this issue,” spokeswoman Michael K. Guilfoyle said.

Renae Lias Claffey, a spokeswoman for Worcester State, said the state university system as a whole is investigating the bills, and is in contact with Sen. Moore’s office.

“We share Sen. Moore's concern about sexual violence on campus and applaud him for taking a leadership role on this issue,” she said. ..Source.. by Scott O’Connell

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