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Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

New MA Bill to Combat Campus Sexual Violence

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is expected to take action on a crucial piece of legislation in the battle against sexual violence on college campuses throughout the Commonwealth. The bill, “An Act creating a sexual assault climate survey for Massachusetts colleges and universities” (Senate Bill 2471), is sponsored by Senator William Brownsberger (D, Belmont), Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and seeks to develop a sexual assault climate survey for Massachusetts based on best practices from peer-reviewed research measuring sexual violence on campus.

The legislation was developed in consultation with political dignitaries, higher education professionals, student advocates of gender equity at universities across the Commonwealth, and student analysts of the Harvard Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. John Gabrieli, a recent graduate of Harvard College and Chair of Policy at the Institute of Politics, championed the movement to draft, ratify, and raise awareness for Senate Bill 2471.

“The bill originally began as a Harvard Health Policy committee project commissioned by Senator Brownsberger in the fall of 2014,” Gabrieli explains. “The goal was to conduct research on what Massachusetts can do to combat sexual assault on college campuses.”

Gabrieli explained the need to combat sexual violence in colleges in light of the fact that commonly cited statistics regarding sexual assault often understate the scope of the problem.

“Our team found that present-day policy-makers lack the information they need to design effective policy responses,” Gabrieli commented. “For example, studies conducted by the Bureau of Labor statistics showed us that while approximately two-thirds of victims inform another person after an assault, less than ten percent ever report incidents to the proper authorities.”

While the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to disclose information about different types of crime on or in proximity to their campuses, including sexual assault, the existence of low report rates shows that official statistics underestimate the problem, Gabrieli asserted. “This issue makes it hard for colleges and universities to identify where and when problems are occurring and how to address them,” he said.

While discussing the provisions of S. 2471, Gabrieli cited similar initiatives that tried to survey college students on their experiences with sexual violence and implement campus services for victims of sexual assault. “One of the models we researched was the Senate McCaskill-Gillibrand bill, which included a survey to be taken by students to share their experiences with assault, implemented training requirements for campus officials, and required officials to work with law enforcement to prevent sexual assault.”

Senate Bill 2471, drawing upon the basics of the McCaskill-Gillibrand bill, aims to establish an anonymous survey for Massachusetts college students in consultation with students, survivors of sexual assault, advocacy groups, and schools. To that end, the sexual assault climate survey serves to collect information about the incidence of sexual violence by gathering information about students’ knowledge of institutional policies and procedures, variables such as alcohol and drug use, and demographics to identify groups at risk of sexual violence.

Accordingly, Senate Bill 2471 also seeks to establish a task force on sexual assault on college campuses, co-chaired by “designees of the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Public Health.”

The objectives of the task force are to design the sexual assault climate survey and decide which colleges will receive the survey. The task force will also consult college officials in order to increase the survey’s efficiency, and exercise any other responsibilities that may be interpreted as belonging to the task force.

In the summer of 2015, students from 16 different schools submitted testimony at a hearing for S. 2471 before the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

“One of the main purposes of the student testimonials was to help shed light on the issue and highlight the fact that we need to gather more knowledge about the persistence of sexual assault and its root causes,” Gabrieli explained. “It was important that student advocates who testified made the case for the passing of this bill, and shared their experiences while participating in an important dialogue.”

Sofia Lesko, one of the individuals at the hearing, highlighted the importance of passing legislation that promotes gender equality and combats the alarmingly high incidence of campus sexual assault. A former student at Suffolk University and the founder and president of HeForShe at Suffolk University, Lesko identifies the necessity for the promotion of both women’s and men’s rights and the elimination of gender stereotypes as reasons behind her eventual advocacy of Senate Bill S. 2471.

“I formed HeForShe as an agent for change, and to raise awareness about global gender equality, Title IX, and eliminating unfair stereotypes,” Lesko explained. HeForShe seeks to promote both men's and women's rights while working to abolish traditional gender stereotypes. John Gabrieli contacted Lesko in June 2015 to prepare testimony for the hearing before the Joint Committee on Higher Education. “The goal of the event was to get a group of students together and highlight the importance of passing a bill like this,” she said.

Katrina Dzyak, a Political Science and English Major at Tufts University, had the opportunity to testify and present her case at the hearing before the Joint Committee. Dzyak connected with Gabrieli while working on an effort to revise Tufts University’s sexual assault and misconduct policies. She led the movement to introduce a task force similar to the one described in S. 2471 on Tufts’ campus.

“Issues like sexual assault tend to bifurcate students and administrators,” Dzyak explained. The task force at Tufts University focused on reducing sexual assault through victim support, education, and revisions to procedure; Dzyak was involved in the branch that dealt with university policy and procedure.

“We looked through a 100+ page manual of Tufts University’s misconduct policies and edited each sentence line-by-line,” Dzyak said. “One of the items we paid attention to in particular was the need to revise and revisit the adjudication process for offenders.”

Commenting on the June 2015 hearing, Dzyak said, “It was an incredible opportunity for members across the state to come together and advocate for the passing of this crucial piece of legislation. It was a chance for advocates to take a stance in the dialogue pertaining to sexual violence, and advocate for change.”

Kate Frisher, a recent graduate of Northeastern University, also testified at the hearing. Kate was involved with Northeastern University's Sexual Assault Response Campaign (SARC) when she was contacted by John to testify. "Our campaign had two major goals," Frisher said. "The first was to get an actual physical place on campus for the university to support victims of sexual assault, and the second was to get the university to release the results for a sexual assault climate survey that had been taken in 2014." The survey's results have since been released and are now available to the student body.

In regards to the June 2015 hearing, Frisher said, "It was astounding. We had 30 students from over 10 universities in the state testify, and it was amazing to see so many passionate advocates participate; it was a very compelling experience!"

While reflecting on the work that went into the development of the bill, Gabrieli acknowledges the efforts of his team members for their tremendous commitment to the project. Gabrieli credits Bekka DePew, his Co-Chair at the Harvard Health Policy Group, for her work on the bill, and the office of Chairman Michael Moore for getting the bill passed through the Senate.

He also acknowledges the various student groups that were part of the coalition, including Northeastern University's Sexual Assault Response Campaign (SARC), MIT's Students Advocating for Education on Respectful Relationships (SAFER2), Wellesley's College Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone (SAAFE), UMass Dartmouth's Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, and members of student government at Salem State University, North Shore Community College, Bristol Community College, and Bridgewater State University in addition to the student advocates from Tufts and Suffolk University.

“This bill not only represents progress in terms of improving the way in which college campuses respond to and design pre-emptive measures for sexual assault, but also goes a long way in furthering research on sexual violence in the state,” Gabrieli commented. “I’m so thankful for the guidance and support that everyone involved with the bill has given, and hope to see the bill passed by the House soon.”

Senate Bill 2471 was recently endorsed by the College Democrats of Massachusetts; advocacy opportunities for S. 2471 and related fields are available to all interested members.

The bill now sits before the House and awaits administrative action.