Beyond the hashtag
State needs to act on protecting survivors in absence of federal support
OVER THE PAST YEAR, thousands of people from across the country have come forward to voice their experiences with sexual assault, abuse, and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement. Now, more than six months after Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” the Person of the Year for 2017, we have to ask ourselves: what has changed? We say #NoMore, and we say #TimesUp. But what actions have states like Massachusetts taken to stop sexual violence?
At the federal level, our government is led by a president who has bragged about touching women without their consent, and currently stands accused of more than 20 counts of sexual assault or harassment. Beyond the president’s own alleged crimes, the current federal administration has attempted to systematically silence complaints of sexual assault and discrimination.
Most notably, in September of 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolled back Obama-era Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. Specifically, the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleagues” letter of 2014 had required universities to train school officials on proper responses to sexual assault, maintain the confidentiality of survivors, adopt fair and transparent grievance procedures for reports of sexual violence, and promptly investigate reports of sexual violence. Now, these protections have been wiped off the books. As SurvJustice founder and rape survivor Laura Dunn has written, “Anytime you fight for civil rights and they are rolled back in your lifetime, it’s devastating.”
With a vacuum of leadership at the federal level, enacting change for survivors falls on states like Massachusetts to step up and set an example for the rest of the country on campus safety. First, we cannot allow the Trump administration to lower the bar for our students. Massachusetts must codify critical Title IX protections into state law, including providing basic training on sexual assault prevention and response to both employees and students, as well as establish minimum standards for a timely and fair investigation process in response to reports of sexual violence. While some schools are already working to provide these services to their students, we must guarantee that all Massachusetts students are equally supported with access to just, transparent, and supportive processes when they report an assault to their school, regardless of which school they attend.
Beyond a confidential advisor, survivors must also be guaranteed access to necessary medical and counseling services and support after an assault. To ensure that all survivors receive access to care, campuses must proactively establish partnerships with local rape crisis centers or other service providers with the resources and expertise to provide high-quality medical and counseling services.
Finally, it’s time to bring the issue of campus sexual assault out of the shadows once and for all. For too long, students coming forward to report an assault have had their experiences denied and dismissed. Even today, a lack of transparency on sexual assault data means that many universities remain incentivized to downplay the extent of the problem and discourage students from coming forward publicly.
If we are going to get serious about addressing sexual violence, we need to start systematically collecting data on sexual assault through anonymous campus climate surveys, and make this data fully accessible to the public. As former Vice President Joe Biden’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault concluded, “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it – and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that.”
These measures – training students and staff, ensuring a fair disciplinary process, providing counseling and medical care to survivors, and gathering accurate and transparent data – are encompassed in two bills from the House and Senate, both of which have passed the Massachusetts state Senate and are currently sitting before the House of Representative. These bills have been supported almost universally by researchers and advocates including sexual assault victims’ advocacy groups such as Jane Doe, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Know Your IX, SurvJustice, and End Rape on Campus, along with the more than 80,000 supporters who have signed a petition urging the state legislature to take action.
Sexual assault is a complicated issue, but the choice we face is simple. When survivors show the courage to come forward and speak out for change, will we listen? In April, hundreds of students and survivors from more than 20 colleges came together in front of the State House for the Every Voice Student Rally Against Sexual Assault, and met face to face with their representatives in support of these bills. In the months since the rally, we have been overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support from many legislators who have pushed tirelessly for change. But actions speak louder than words.With the current legislative session drawing to a close on July 31st, the House needs to act now. In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, thousands of students from across Massachusetts have raised our voices as loud as we can in support of basic rights and protections for survivors of sexual assault on our college campuses. It is time for our representatives to stand with survivors and take real action to keep our students safe, and passing the stalled measures would be an excellent start.
John Gabrieli, Ivy Lee, and Danielle St. Pierre are volunteer members of the Every Voice Coalition of students against sexual violence and alumni of Harvard, Northeastern, and UMass Dartmouth. Learn more about the coalition at everyvoicema.org or sign the petition in support of the bill at care2.com/everyvoicema