Campus safety report pushes for better response to sexual assaults

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BOSTON >> A state report presented to higher education officials on Tuesday calls on the 29 public universities and colleges in Massachusetts to make it easier for students to report sexual assault and to create "prompt, thorough, and impartial" processes for investigating those reports.

Focusing on sexual violence as well as active shooter and other emergency situations, the report contains a series of "best practice" recommendations for keeping students safe while maintaining "an open and welcoming community of learners . . . that allows for the free flow of individuals and ideas."

"Protecting students, faculty, staff, and visitors from any violence that they may encounter - whether from a stranger with a gun, or from a peer at a party - is foundational and essential if we expect the campus community to thrive and succeed in an academic environment," reads the report, prepared by a team of security consultants for the Board of Higher Education.

Studies indicate that sexual assault and other sexual violence are "significantly underreported," and rapes and assaults on students are more likely to go unreported to police than non-student assaults, according to the report.

The report defines "sexual violence" as sexual assault and attempted assault, sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, domestic and dating violence and stalking.

In addition to creating teams dedicated to preventing and responding to sexual violence, the report recommends that the state's 29 public universities, colleges and community colleges offer training for students that includes components on respect for gender and cultural differences, consent, expectations for healthy sexual relationships, and options for bystanders.

Authors of the report say it is "vital" to engage male students and encourage them to intervene if they witness a potential case of sexual violence. They encourage specific outreach for Greek Life members and male student athletes.

A primary goal for the education system should be "eliminating barriers" to reporting sexual violence, according to the study, which suggests clarifying reporting policies, expanding access to confidential resources, and providing supports for both assault survivors and students accused of assault.

Investigators should be trained on laws, evidentiary requirements, and interviewing skills, and should be given "sufficient time to do this work in a prompt and thorough manner," the report said.

The report recommends "heightened vigilance" to protect vulnerable campus populations, including LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, minors and international students.

Campus sexual assault has attracted national attention after several high-profile cases, most recently a judge's sentencing of a Stanford University swimmer convicted of felony sex assault charges to six months in jail.

In an interview on Boston Herald Radio last week, University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan said the Stanford case could serve as a "teaching moment."

"This is a major issue of sexual assault, and the more we talk about it, the better it's going to be," Meehan said. "I meet on a regular basis with the chancellors of the various campuses, the five campuses that we have at UMass, and we talk about what are we doing for outreach."

Last week, the administration and finance committee of the UMass Board of Trustees discussed revisions to sexual harassment and discrimination policies, which Meehan said were intended to align the policies with federal ones.

The Board of Higher Education is scheduled to vote on acceptance of its campus safety report during a Tuesday morning meeting at Worcester State University.

The Board of Higher Education's first campus safety study was commissioned in 2008, after a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.

Analysts found that the state's 29 public institutions have made "much progress" in the years since the 2008 report, with 89 percent of campuses now including the topic of safety and security in their student orientations and all equipped with a mass notification program to alert the campus community of an emergency.

The report calls for campuses to develop and maintain "a comprehensive emergency operations plan" and provide active shooter training for students, faculty staff and campus law enforcement.

"The best defense against an active shooter incident is to develop constant situational awareness," the report said. "Developing a complacent mindset of 'it cannot happen to me' or 'it will not happen here' only provides for a false sense of security. Preparation has proven to be instrumental in the ability to survive an active shooter event, in both a confident and competent manner."

Schools should first conduct a review of safety and security policies, and hold regular stakeholder meetings and trainings once a plan is developed, the consultants wrote.

The report also recommends that the colleges and universities form "a behavioral threat assessment and management team" to review individual cases that may indicate threats, citing similar efforts required by legislation in both Virginia and Illinois.


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