Students Work To Bolster College Campus Sexual Assault Law

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The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down many aspects of college students’ lives, but one student advocacy group has continued its work toward strengthening the law on the reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The Every Voice Coalition in Connecticut, part of a national group of students and advocates, convinced lawmakers to sponsor a bill, An Act Concerning Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses, during this year’s legislative session. The bill, which was aired at a recent public hearing of the Higher Education and Employment Advance Committee, says that:

• Colleges will impose amnesty policies to protect students from being punished for reporting due to alcohol or drug use at the time of the assault; and

• Campus Climate Surveys will be disseminated to collect data on sexual violence and to increase transparency. Advocates and health officials maintain that sexual assaults on college campuses are under-reported.

Zoe Bertone, a student at Connecticut College, is an outreach coordinator for Every Voice Coalition CT.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut reported 436 incidents of sexual assaults and stalking on college campuses, but added that figure represents only a small percentage of all incidents on campuses. A review by the Conn. Health I-Team of sexual violent crimes on 19 college campuses found that there were 235 reported incidents by universities and colleges in Connecticut in 2019. Higher education institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs are required under the Clery Act to disclose crime on or near their college campuses yearly.

“Looking at the data in Connecticut from a couple of years ago, there were 436 reported cases of sexual violence [on college campuses], but we know that that encompasses maybe 10% of what goes on,” said Zoe Bertone, a student at Connecticut College and a student outreach coordinator for Connecticut’s Every Voice Coalition.

Bertone said data reported by colleges is based on official complaints filed. She said that the proposal for Campus Climate Surveys “would be valuable in tracking what students may not be comfortable with reporting.”

Alison Cantor, a Brandeis University student and student outreach coordinator with Connecticut’s Every Voice Coalition, also emphasized the importance of the data that can come from the climate surveys.

“You need to know the data of a problem before you can address it,” Cantor said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people are survivors [of sexual assaults] on college campuses, and no one knows … unless you have a close friend or someone to tell about your experience, they may never share because of shame or blame or fear of guilt and other trauma that goes with that.”

Officials from the University of Connecticut, which reported 19 sexual offenses in 2019, compared to 32 in 2018, spoke in favor of the legislative proposal at the recent public hearing.

“We echo the common goals of creating safe campus communities and removing barriers to reporting,” the testimony submitted reads. “We also recognize the value of obtaining information directly from our students about their experiences with the campus climate and sexual misconduct to inform this work.”

UConn’s testimony said that they believe surveys can be valuable for campuses to assess the climate, and to identify opportunities for prevention and response efforts.

“We would note, however, that in order for campuses to effectively use surveys in this way, colleges and universities should be permitted to administer surveys in the manner best suited for their students and respective campuses and aligned with the work that most institutions already are doing in this area,” UConn’s testimony said.

Stephanie Reitz, UConn’s spokesperson, said UConn provides many ways for students to report sexual violence, including an option to remain anonymous and to decline to participate in an investigation.

“The University offers many resources for survivors of sexual assault, stalking and related interpersonal violence; no one is turned away from support if they decline to participate in an investigation,” Reitz said.

The Campus Climate Survey would have baseline questions for all colleges to use, according to Kaitlyn Drake, a Fairfield University student and member of Connecticut’s Every Voice Coalition steering committee.

“It’s not like campuses can have their own questions on their own volition that relate to their campus, but they’ll have to go through these certain questions,” Drake said. “So, it’s not like they can get around it.”

Alison Hagani, state director of Connecticut’s Every Voice Coalition, said that the bill has the support of about 60 lawmakers, representing both legislative chambers and party affiliations.   The measure is before the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advance Committee.  To become law, the measure must be approved by the committee and the House and Senate and signed by the governor.

“The hearing was everything our coalition hoped it would be,” Hagani, a Brandeis University student from Woodbridge, said. “It represented the wide breadth of support we have for HB 6374 and featured strong student testimony on why the legislation is essential for them.”

Alison Hagani, state director, Connecticut’s Every Voice Coalition.

Testimony in support of the bill included various students, state representatives, college administrators and leaders of groups like the Connecticut ACLU and the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

The Every Voice Coalition was founded in Massachusetts in 2015, with five core values: Free access to medical and legal support services; anti-retaliation protections for survivors; confidential advising for survivors’ rights and options; transparent data on sexual violence; and evidence-based prevention and response training.

The Connecticut branch of the coalition was created in early 2020.

“We also want to amplify voices,” Bertone said. “So, one of the biggest missions is to amplify the voices closest to the pain. We’re survivor-centered, student-written. We are continuing to assess the needs of survivors and how we can best support them with our legislation and beyond.”

Every Voice also works to collaborate with other campus groups, according to Drake, who spoke of her experiences working with her fellow students at Fairfield University, which reported 8 on-campus sexual offenses in 2019 and 8 in 2018.

“Our initiative at Fairfield is to make a safe space where people of all genders, sexualities, all colors can come and express themselves,” Drake said.

Volunteers visit different colleges and host campus conversations to spread the word about what they’re working toward.

“We do presentations over Zoom with our campus leaders and with students on their campuses to talk about what is Every Voice, how did it start, what are our values, what do we do, what is our legislation proposing,” Cantor said. “And then we kind of brainstorm like, what can we do on each campus to spread the word about Every Voice and to mobilize students to advocate for themselves and for policies that will help survivors on their own college campus.”

The volunteers all agreed it’s important to create communities on college campuses that are dedicated and committed to this work.

Ashley Anglisano is a December 2020 graduate of the University of Connecticut, where she studied Journalism and Communication. At UConn, Ashley oversaw the News section of The Daily Campus. She just accepted a communications position with Agero, a driver technology and roadside assistance company, and is relocating to the Greater Boston area.

 

 

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