Senate advances campus sexual assault bill
Bill gives victims more rights, resources
THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE on Wednesday advanced a bill that would give students on college campuses more rights and resources in dealing with sexual assault.
Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, said on the Senate floor that many students do not report incidents of campus sexual assault. “This bill will lift the veil of secrecy, protect the rights of the accused, and help change the culture on campuses,” Moore said.
Versions of the bill have been introduced each session since 2015 and have passed the Senate multiple times. The legislation appears to have a better chance of becoming law this year, after some changes related to due process for the accused, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz both pledging support.
While a date for a House vote has not yet been set, in a joint statement earlier this week Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said, “The House and Senate are committed to working together to get a strong campus climate survey and sexual assault prevention bill to the governor’s desk this session.”
The bill would require campuses to provide free access to sexual assault crisis services, either on campus or through a contract with a community-based organization.
Each campus would have to have at least one confidential “resource provider,” who could help students and employees report sexual misconduct, access counseling and medical care, receive school-based supports, and navigate the investigative process.
John Gabrieli, founder and co-chair of the Every Voice Coalition, a group of students and advocates fighting sexual violence on campus, which has been pushing for the bill, said the confidential resource provider is particularly important because professors and deans are generally required by law to report a sexual assault. So a victim who tells an adult at school about an assault may get dragged into a legal investigation, even if that is not what they want. As a result, some victims stay silent and receive no support services. A confidential advisor would provide students with a trained person they can go to to learn about their options for reporting an assault and be connected to health care or support services.
Moore said in an interview that having a confidential advisor “really puts the control back into the victim’s hands.”
The bill also requires colleges to develop and publicly post policies on sexual misconduct involving students and employees. Colleges would have to develop memorandums of understanding with local police departments, spelling out the roles of the police and the college in cases of on and off-campus sexual misconduct.
Moore said these policies are important because today there are often not clear standards regarding things like the standard of evidence in administrative hearings and under what circumstances the police will be notified. Moore said the bill provides more rights for both parties – for example, by letting both parties have someone with them at an administrative hearing, so an accused student can be advised by legal counsel.
The bill requires all colleges to conduct surveys on campus sexual misconduct at least every four years and post the results on their website. Ninety 90 percent of on-campus sexual assaults go unreported, Gabrieli said. A survey would let schools better understand the extent of sexual violence on campus, while letting students “make their voices heard.”
The Commissioner of Higher Education would create a new position in state government — campus safety adviser, to advance campus safety initiatives statewide.
Gabrieli said the bill is particularly important in light of changes that US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made to federal standards for campus sexual assault policies. Those changes gave new protections to students accused of sexual assault, including the right to cross-examine their accuser, and were widely criticized by victims’ rights advocates.“Student and survivors spoke out to say we need more supports, we need transparency, and it’s encouraging to see the Senate heeding that and taking action,” Gabrieli said.
In the past, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts has opposed the bill, arguing that the issue was addressed by federal standards, and a state law could set up conflicts. A spokesperson for AICUM did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest version of the bill.