POV: Governor Baker Signs Much Needed Campus Sexual Assault Bill
New legislation will give students on Massachusetts college campuses more rights and resources
It’s said that one is the loneliest number, but for college and university students across the nation, that number is actually 1.97 million.
With approximately 19.7 million students attending college and universities and roughly one in 10 students experiencing sexual violence by the time they leave college, 1.97 million students, like myself, will navigate the complexities of campus sexual violence and its aftermath.
Navigating through trauma, for me, was and is like walking through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—beautiful yet ugly, safe yet dangerous, sweet yet vile. The only consistency is inconsistency, and the allure of disillusionment, the allure of continued isolation was as attractive and thirst-quenching as the Mad Hatter’s tea. I met the flowers that sang beautiful songs, but saw me as a weed, the Bandersnatch that manifested as a vision of the perpetrator, and the cards and guards that held the Queen’s law, taking the heads and hearts of all who question what is, was, and will be.
As I entered this trauma labyrinth, not by choice but by circumstance, I was first fixated with a “who,” the answer to “who did this to you?” But as I actively ventured further, searching for a respite and an exit, I, like many, realized that “who” eventually makes an acquaintance with “what,” a two-headed what that hides in the shadows, adding layer upon layer of biological, psychological, and sociological effects to the already complex and sometimes suffocating labyrinth. “What” is called System & Stigma, that which perpetuates cycles of violence and that which silences those who experience and witness it.
For the past six years, the Every Voice Coalition MA (EVC MA), a nonprofit organization led by students, allies, and self-identified survivors from over 50 colleges and universities, including Boston University, Harvard College, Mount Holyoke College, Northeastern University, UMass Amherst, UMass Dartmouth, and Wellesley College, has worked tirelessly to combat System & Stigma, through legislative action and conversation. In coalition with other statewide and national nonprofits and government organizations like Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Jane Doe, Inc., and the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance, EVC MA provides one of many paths of healing and empowerment through grassroots organizing, legislative advocacy, and a supportive community of students and alumni.
Guided by a vision of a future without sexual violence and the hope of a law written by and for students, the Massachusetts team devoted weekends, holidays, and hours after classes editing bills, organizing, corresponding with lawyers, community partners, and institutions of higher education, and eventually amassing 161 cosponsors in the Massachusetts House and Senate and nearly 190,000 petitioners. On January 12, 2021, Governor Baker took the final step to turn that hope into reality by signing into law EVC MA’s An Act Relative to Sexual Violence on Higher Education Campuses via a one-of-a-kind virtual signing from his kitchen table.
The new law requires public and private institutions of higher education in the commonwealth to 1) develop memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with rape crisis centers; (2) provide confidential advising services; (3) create an amnesty policy; (4) administer mandatory campus climate surveys; and (5) require evidence-based annual prevention and response training for all students and employees.
To ensure all students have access to resources and services post-assault, the law requires schools to formalize students’ access to existing services at community-based rape crisis centers through memorandums of understanding. Recognizing the potential gray area associated with school-affiliated off-campus assaults, Section 168E(c) also mandates the adoption of MOUs between higher education institutions and local law enforcement to formally assign roles and responsibilities regarding sexual misconduct cases on and off campus, streamlining communication between law enforcement, the institution, and students who choose to report or consult law enforcement.
Students will have access to a trained and impartial confidential resource provider (CRP), who may be a current employee of the school, a new hire, or an outsourced provider. The CRP will be responsible for clarifying academic, medical, and legal options, as well as cost of services and potential reimbursements. Whether for fear of retaliation or fear that “they will not be believed or will be derogated,” an estimated 90 percent of college students choose not to report their experiences of sexual misconduct.
The law additionally necessitates an amnesty policy prohibiting “retaliation against anyone who reports sexual misconduct, who assists another in making a report or who participates in an investigation of a report.” Existing power dynamics or the usage of any substances must not discount a case of sexual misconduct.
Institution employees and present/prospective students and families deserve transparency and a sense of security. Fostering dialogue and community inclusion, this law creates a task force of government employees/proxies, students at public, private, and community colleges, rape crisis center representatives, and researchers in statistics, data analytics, or econometrics (Section 168D(c)). The task force will gather feedback from stakeholders and consult experts to develop a campus climate survey, administered every four years. This university-wide survey will collect anonymized information on the number of reported and unreported incidents of sexual misconduct, awareness of policies, support services, and civil/criminal justice pathways, demographics of at-risk groups, perceptions of safety, and any other information deemed necessary. All aggregate data from the campus climate surveys must be posted on the institution’s websites to ensure transparency. Aggregate data may also be used in developing the final portion of the law, the newly required annual prevention and response training, ensuring that all students at every school receive comprehensive and informative training on consent, bystander intervention, and school and community resources.
Understanding that (1) sexual misconduct can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, party/religious affiliations, abilities, etc., and (2) sexual misconduct and university experiences vary with identity and affiliation, I hope that designators exercise the utmost consideration in creating a diverse and representative task force.
Collectively, the five components will provide students with options and confidential support post-assault, encourage healthy community dialogue, and equip administrators with the tools to increase transparency and better educate students and staff on prevention methods. Now, Massachusetts colleges and universities, like BU, have the opportunity to become exemplary, proactive institutions that not only provide world-class education, but truly value their students and staff.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.