Mass. Senate OKs bill to lift 'veil of secrecy' on campus sex assaults

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BOSTON — Pointing to the ongoing national conversation about sexual harassment, state senators on Thursday passed a bill aimed at ensuring college students have a place to turn on campus if they've been sexually assaulted, and at preventing such violence in the first place.

Sen. Michael Moore of Millbury, the co-chairman of Higher Education Committee and the bill's sponsor, called it "unacceptable" that 23 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact in a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities, but between 72 percent and 95 percent of those incidents went unreported.

Moore's bill, which passed unanimously, requires students and staff to receive annual mandatory training on sexual violence awareness and prevention, and for colleges and universities to post online and distribute by email their policies on sexual assault.

The bill, Moore said, would "help lift a veil of secrecy and empower our children" in times of crisis.

"Our college campuses must be safe environments that allow students to learn, conduct research and engage in group activities without the threat or fear of sexual violence," said state Sen. Adam G. Hinds, D-Pittsfield, in a statement. "This bill makes great strides in creating and maintaining such environments."

Under the bill, schools would be required to designate a "confidential resource adviser" who can provide students information on available counseling and medical services after an assault, as well as their options for reporting it. Speaking to the adviser would not trigger a formal investigation, but would allow a victim to better plan the path they wish to take, Sen. Eric Lesser said.

Moore said the bill would ensure fair procedures and appropriate services were in place for both reporting parties and the accused. Doing so is critical, he said, after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created "uncertainty for our students" by rescinding Obama administration guidelines addressing sexual violence on campus.

Sen. Cynthia Creem said passing the bill at this moment carries added significance. Allegations of sexual assault and harassment against film executive Harvey Weinstein have again prompted national discussions about the issue.

Women across the country responded to the Weinstein news by sharing their own experiences with assault and harassment on social media, with the hashtag #MeToo. A column by the Boston Globe's Yvonne Abraham, featuring interviews with a dozen anonymous women, detailed instances of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill and prompted a renewed focus on policies for prevention and reporting.

Debate on the bill wrapped up without a specific mention of sexual assault allegations at the State House.

Creem said every time she opens a newspaper or looks at social media lately, she sees "yet another account" of someone who has been sexually assaulted and is now sharing their story. She said she and many of her colleagues have had "more than one Me Too story."

Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler said she wished victims of sexual assault felt as safe coming to their university administrators as they may have sharing their stories on social media through the #MeToo campaign. She asked senators to "speak up for the muted voices of victims of sexual assault on campus."

"This bill intends to make these institutions better equipped to help women report their stories and see justice, not feel forced to run and hide," Chandler said, "I am supporting this bill because I know what it is like to be a woman, to have a daughter and a granddaughter, to have women on my staff, and to speak with women in my district. We all have our own stories and would benefit from this bill."

The Senate passed a similar bill last year. Moore said since then, he's talked with representatives from the public higher education system and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, which represents private campuses, and incorporated some of their recommendations.

AICUM said in a statement that its members look forward to working with the legislature to "seek improvements to this bill" to ensure it builds upon the policies, procedures, trainings and resources already developed by Massachusetts schools.

The bill, which needs approval from the House and Gov. Charlie Baker to become law, also establishes a post of "campus safety adviser" within the Department of Higher Education and requires schools to enter agreements with rape crisis centers and to develop sexual assault response policies with local law enforcement.

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