On January 12, 2021 Governor Charlie Baker signed an “An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses” into law. The sexual violence bill was pushed for by survivors of sexual assault on campus and aims to provide more resources to victims while setting out clear standards for how cases will be handled by institutions.
For decades, students have been advocating for basic rights, protections, and support in regard to sexual violence in higher education environments. Deemed a “silent epidemic” by the American Medical Association, a 2017 study at Columbia University and Barnard College found that since college entry, 22% of students reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual assault. And in another landmark study of sex, power, and assault on campus, authors Jennifer Hirsh and Shamus Khan produced the Sexual Citizens in 2020, which transformed how we understand and address sexual assault.
The issue of campus sexual assault has been one that the Higher Education Committee has been grappling with this entire legislative session. And the bill that was signed yesterday addresses these issues of campus sexual violence as follows:
- Each institution shall conduct a sexual misconduct climate survey of all students at said institution at least once every four years.
- A task force on sexual misconduct shall develop model questions for a sexual misconduct climate survey.
- Each institution shall adopt policies on sexual misconduct involving students or employees of the institution that comport with the best practices and current professional standards and shall establish procedures for regularly reviewing and updating the policies.
- Each institution shall establish a campus security policy that includes the designation of at least one confidential resource provider. The confidential resource provider shall receive training in the awareness and prevention of sexual misconduct and in trauma-informed response and coordinate with on-campus and off-campus sexual assault crisis service centers and, if directed by the reporting party, campus or local law enforcement agencies may, as appropriate, assist the student in contacting or reporting to campus or local law enforcement agencies.
- Each institution shall adopt a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement agencies to establish the respective roles and responsibilities of each party related to the prevention of and response to on-campus and off-campus sexual misconduct.
- The commissioner shall appoint within the department of higher education a campus safety advisor to facilitate and advance statewide campus safety at public and private institutions of higher education.
- Each institution shall make campus sexual assault data and resources publicly available on its website.
- An institution that does not provide its own sexual assault crisis service center shall enter into and maintain a memorandum of understanding with a community-based sexual assault crisis service center funded by the department of public health and a community-based domestic violence agency funded by the department of public health.
- An institution shall provide a method for anonymously reporting an incident of sexual misconduct that involves a student or employee of the institution.
- Enhanced training protocols for sexual misconduct primary prevention and awareness programming.
- Annual reporting by each institution to the Department of Higher Education who shall file an annual report containing aggregate statewide information on the frequency and nature of sexual misconduct on campuses.
”With this legislation, Massachusetts has demonstrated its commitment to making campuses safe for students and survivors,” said the House’s Higher Education Chair Jeffrey N. Roy (D-Franklin). “It was a privilege to work with student advocates like the Every Voice Coalition, along with my colleagues Lori Ehrlich, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Marjorie Decker, Randy Hunt, Ann Gobi, Michael Moore, and William Brownsberger, representatives from our colleges and universities, and other groups who helped refine this comprehensive legislation. The dedication and commitment to getting it right enabled us to address these important issues and offer robust educational opportunities and support for students, faculty and staff at our prized institutions of higher education.”
“Rape culture is alive and well on our campuses. Twenty percent, or one in five, young women are sexually assaulted at college, the great majority between Labor Day and Thanksgiving of their freshman or sophomore year,” said Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “This bill, led by young people themselves, will go a long way in changing the culture, preventing sexual assault, and bringing justice for those impacted.”
“The student advocates at Every Voice were tireless in their fight for this legislation, as well organized and informed in their efforts as any professional advocacy organization,” said Co-Lead Sponsor and State Representative Lori Ehrlich, who co-filed the bill at the legislature. “I am thrilled that this bill has been signed into law. This is a victory for students throughout the Commonwealth, and clear evidence of what youth activists can accomplish when they come together for change. I am proud to have worked alongside them.”
“Over the past six years survivors, students, and advocates tirelessly fought on behalf of our rights; survivors’ rights,” said Nora Gallo, co-National Director for the Every Voice Coalition and 2020 Umass, Amherst Alumna. “After decades of zero protections under Massachusetts law, our student survivors will have access to the support, resources, and guidance needed to thrive in higher education. This student-written, survivor-centered law sends a message to survivors and students across the state and country that they matter, and after being silenced for so long, that their voices are finally heard.”
While serving as Chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Roy participated in several conferences and meetings on the topic, read several books and papers addressing the issue, and met with individuals and advocates who have subject matter expertise. On April 9, 2019, the Committee held its first hearing which provided countless personal stories about how campus sexual assault affects students from all walks of life. The committee heard clearly how difficult it can be for survivors of sexual assault to come forward and speak to anyone about what they experienced, and that when they do, they are often met with disbelief and limited resources for support.
The Higher Education Committee released its re-draft of the legislation on February 20, 2020, addressing both concerns as well as putting an emphasis on prevention.
Simultaneous to the Committee’s work on this bill, Sec. Betsy DeVos (U.S. Department of Education) rewrote the Obama era Title IX guidelines. On May 6, 2020, the department published its final guidelines and gave colleges and universities until August 14, 2020 to comply with the new standards. Since President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20, 2021, there will be a movement to undo these regulations on how federally funded schools should investigate cases of sexual assault. The legislation that was enacted took into consideration the federal regulations and it was crafted so as not to conflict with them. More importantly, S2979 goes far beyond what is addressed in the DeVos regulations and provides meaningful and needed supports to address sexual violence on our higher education campuses.
Over the past 50 years, adoption of rules and laws such as Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Campus SAVE Act of the Violence Against Women Act have helped address these issues at the federal level. This new law will address issues at the state level and will support Massachusetts institutions of higher education by establishing a clear pathway toward building communities in which sexual violence will not be tolerated, in which sexual violence will be appropriately addressed when reported, and where all victims will have access to safe and confidential services.