By Katie Lannan
State House News Service
BOSTON — Dozens of college students and recent alumni shared their personal stories with lawmakers Tuesday as they urged quick action on bills aimed at providing more information on the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses and ways to support survivors.
Many were survivors themselves, including some who had experienced sexual assault in the years since the legislation they back was first filed, said Sabine Adamson, a Wellesley College student and founding member of the Every Voice Coalition, which advocates against campus sexual violence.
One bill (H 1208/S 736) creates a task force to develop a sexual assault climate survey and would require colleges and universities to conduct the survey every two years and publicly post a summary of the results.
The other (H 1209/S 764) would require higher education institutions to create and communicate policies on sexual and gender-based violence, mandate prevention training for students, and establish a “confidential resource advisor” to provide information to both survivors and students accused of assault.
Supporters pointed to statistics showing at least one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college.
“This is a public health emergency,” said Peter Houlihan, a UMass Amherst faculty member who said his daughter was a survivor of sexual harassment and assault. “Imagine if a quarter of the students at UMass came down with measles. There would be absolutely no delay in taking immediate and strong action to deal with a crisis like that.
Katya Zinn, a Lesley University student, told lawmakers she “stopped believing in justice” when she was 18, after she was sexually assaulted her first week at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Zinn said she was given a written warning for violating the school’s zero-tolerance policy on underage alcohol consumption, “while the man who violated me was given the benefit of the doubt.” She said she was harassed after school officials identified her as the accuser and ultimately expelled after attempting suicide in her dorm room.
Anti-retaliation measures and access to a confidential advocate would have helped in her situation, Zinn said.
“I am here because I believe this is the year we bring justice to survivors. If it isn’t, then I’ll see you next session,” Zinn said, to applause from the crowd.
Like other bills scheduled for early hearings this year — school funding reform, for example, and the conversion therapy ban Gov. Charlie Baker signed Monday — campus sexual violence is an area lawmakers acted on last session, but did not get a final bill to the governor.
The House and the Senate passed different versions of a climate survey bill last summer, with the Senate amending its bill to also include provisions from the broader campus assault bill. The two versions were never reconciled.
Both bills this session — the climate survey bill, filed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich and Sen. William Brownsberger, and the campus sexual violence bill, filed by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Sen. Michael Moore — are backed by more than half of the 200-member state Legislature, according to the Every Voice Coalition.
Ehrlich and Farley-Bouvier testified alongside each other, flanked by 10 other representatives. Farley-Bouvier said they see the legislation as “sister bills” and believe passing both together “will make a great impact.”
The House lawmakers told of their college experiences in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, as well as in more recent years.
Ehrlich graduated Lehigh University in 1985, three months before freshman Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in the same dorm where Ehrlich spent her freshman year. Clery’s parents lobbied for the law now named in her honor requiring campuses to publicly report certain crimes.
Rep. Christina Minicucci spoke emotionally of her experience with campus sexual assault in her first month of college and the confusion, anger and fear that followed. She said she trained to become an advocate on a survivor hotline, and as she spent time listening to other survivors speak she “realized we weren’t doing enough.”
A North Andover Democrat who attended college in the 1990s, Minicucci said she “could tell stories for days about campus sexual assault, culture and the cycle of violence.”
“I could tell stories of women who had to leave campus, change majors and take time off,” she said. “With the benefit of time, I can tell stories about the long-term lasting impact of those assaults and the ability of those women to hold down jobs, engage in healthy relationships and reach their full potential, and I can give you a hint — many haven’t been able to do any of those things. I can also tell stories of women like me who accessed the available resources in the community and were able to get the interventions and help they needed in a timely fashion. Though those stories are not all perfect, many of those stories follow a more positive trajectory.”
Rep. Sarah Peake said she was struck hearing her colleagues describe many of the same “coping mechanisms” — never leaving a friend behind at a party, traveling around campus in groups — she remembered from attending college from 1975 through 1979.
“The thing I got from this was the generational piece,” said Rep. Stephan Hay, a committee member. “Sixties, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, it doesn’t matter. It’s been going on for way too long.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who in February attended a campus sexual violence summit hosted by the Every Voice Coalition, met Tuesday with students from the coalition.
“The Speaker has had initial conversations with Chairman Roy and looks forward to talking with him about today’s hearing and the committee’s plans moving forward,” said Catherine Williams, a DeLeo spokeswoman.
Rob McCarron of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts said lawmakers should consider the uncertain federal landscape as they move forward on the issue.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed changes to the federal rules around how schools respond to sexual harassment and assault under the civil rights law Title IX, and McCarron said a finalized version is expected this fall.
There are areas where the campus violence bill could be in conflict with the new federal regulations, McCarron said, pointing to DeVos’ proposal to require that schools hold live hearings, with testimony subject to cross examination, in sexual misconduct cases.
“If you have that, how does that square with the bill’s requirement that there be no direct questioning between the parties?” he said.
On the issue of climate surveys, McCarron said many AICUM member schools already use surveys, and the association believes it’s important for colleges to have flexibility to use surveys that meet the specific needs of their campuses and students.