Time for Beacon Hill to act on campus sexual assault bill

New DeVos regulations and COVID make state action more urgent than ever

FOUR YEARS AGO, a diverse coalition of student activists and victim service providers filed a bill with the Massachusetts Legislature to keep campus survivors safe given the impending threat of new federal Department of Education regulations under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. As of August 14, 2020, those regulations have now taken effect, allowing full cross-examination of students in campus hearings, requiring mandatory dismissal of sexual assault complaints that happen to occur off-campus, and weakening Title IX standards protecting against sexual harassment.

Since the regulations were first proposed three years ago, we have feared the devastating impact they would have on survivors of sexual violence. Never could we have imagined that these regulations — which will chill reporting and harm our most vulnerable communities — would take effect during a global pandemic.

Sexual assault thrives in isolation. Those who cause harm prey on survivors who have limited access to resources, community, and safety. COVID-19 has only exacerbated conditions that leave survivors navigating the aftermath of assault without support. Living at home or isolated in apartments, survivors have lost connection to friends, counselors and other resources they need to cope with trauma and make difficult decisions. They may have parents who do not know about the violence. They may live with others who are unsupportive of their identity, gender or culture or would dismiss their claims of violence.

Take quarantine pods, for example, a housing strategy utilized by many campuses. In a typical  quarantine pod, students on campus cannot separate from a small group of designated peers. What happens if an assault takes place within a pod? Where will students turn for support when forced to stay confined? What if the student does not wish to formalize their complaint against the person who caused them harm?

The Legislature now has before it a bill (H.4418/S.2580) that would create clarity, safety, and resources for survivors at a time when clarity is sorely needed. We were very encouraged by comments this week from House Speaker Robert DeLeo that he would like to see action on the bill this year.

Originally filed by students and advocates back in 2016, this legislation would require that all campuses in Massachusetts have a confidential resource advisor (CRA) to help students access resources and support. A CRA will be able to help facilitate services in-person or remotely and would offer a lifeline to survivors suffering alone. This role offers students confidential services and support and places the decision to initiate a Title IX investigation in the hands of the survivor.

This legislation also solidifies relationships between campuses and local sexual and domestic violence service providers. Local community providers offer training and resources beyond what the campus or CRA alone will be able to provide, including community trainings, 24/7 hotlines, and free counseling.

In the COVID-19 crisis, sexual and domestic violence organizations across the Commonwealth have adapted their services to be remotely available, including establishing new text and chat lines to increase accessibility and other innovative means to support survivors. Establishing relationships with local providers is essential to the health and well-being of campus survivors not only now but also into the foreseeable future.

As education providers grapple to understand the impact of the pandemic on the incidence of sexual and domestic violence across the Commonwealth, passage of this bill would also implement an anonymous climate survey, giving campuses a real-time snapshot of student experiences, vulnerable populations, and access to support, all of which better informs what more can be done to address student needs.

Far too many years have passed waiting for critical safety measures to protect campus survivors. Students across the state recognize the urgent need for this legislation: In the midst of online classes, they just organized a statewide “back to school” Virtual Day of Advocacy earlier this week to push for action on the bill. This legislation, planned and vetted over years, is crucial to meeting the needs of the many survivors who will pass through Massachusetts colleges and universities this year alone.

For years, our elected leaders have promised they would not allow Massachusetts students to be put in danger by a federal rollback of protections against campus sexual assault. Just this week, Speaker Robert DeLeo addressed student members of the Every Voice Coalition and told them that “even as the House has grappled with COVID-19 and other pressing issues, we remain committed… to addressing campus sexual violence” and said he is “hopeful that the bill can be debated and acted upon this year.”

Now, at a time of unprecedented crisis, we ask our Legislature to make good on that promise and take decisive action.

Jane Doe Inc., the Victim Rights Law Center, the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, the American Association of University Women, and the Every Voice Coalition are Boston area organizations or agencies committed to combatting campus sexual assault.