Citing new federal regulations and the devastation that sexual violence can wreak on individuals, Speaker Robert DeLeo said Tuesday he wants to see the House take up by the end of the year a bill addressing sexual assault on college campuses.
The speaker's comments come more than two years after the House and Senate were unable to complete work on a similar bill, and kicked the issue ahead to the 2019-2020 session, where the bills have remained in committees.
Speaking to a virtual gathering of a student advocacy group, DeLeo, who, as speaker, presides over a Democratic supermajority and exercises great control over the House's agenda, highlighted a specific bill that is before the House Ways and Means Committee.
The bill (H 4418) would require colleges and universities to adopt, and communicate to students, sexual misconduct policies that include procedures for reporting incidents, information on where to receive emergency assistance, descriptions of support services and protective measures available for survivors, and information on the school's procedures for resolving and investigating sexual misconduct claims. It lays out specific measures those procedures would need to involve.
It also would create a task force to develop model questions for a sexual misconduct climate survey, which, after review by state higher education officials, would be distributed to colleges and universities. Schools also could write their own surveys, and public and independent higher education institutions would have to survey their students at least once every four years, and post a summary of the anonymous responses online.
"I'm hopeful that the bill can be debated and acted upon this year," DeLeo told members of the Every Voice Coalition. "Even as the House has grappled with COVID-19 and other pressing issues, we remain committed — we remain committed, let me stress that —to addressing campus sexual violence."
Responding to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the House and Senate this summer agreed to extend their time period for formal legislative sessions, during which debate can occur, through the end of the year and past the July 31 deadline set by their joint rules.
So far, each branch has continued to meet only in informal sessions, which typically are attended lightly and feature movement on local bills and other noncontroversial matters.
Legislative leaders haven't offered a schedule for the rest of the year, when lawmakers will have to craft a spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year — the current temporary budget runs out at the end of October — and face pressure to wrap up the major bills on policing reform, health care, climate change, economic development and transportation financing that are pending in private conference committees.
The campus assault bill DeLeo mentioned in his remarks was endorsed by the Higher Education Committee in February, and the committee sent a similar bill (S 2580) to the Senate Ways and Means Committee in early March.
Shortly after, as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, colleges across Massachusetts sent their students home and abruptly transitioned to remote education. As in many other industries, the public health crisis also has rattled the finances and structure of the higher education world.
Speakers during the Every Voice Coalition's virtual advocacy event said that the need for the bill is underscored by the fact that many students will continue with distance learning this fall, away from in-person support services that normally might be offered on campus.
"There is no question that colleges and universities have experienced disruption this year unlike any other in memory," DeLeo said. "But, for individuals, sexual violence can mean disruption at any time, so while we are certainly mindful of the broader environment our institutions of higher education are facing, we know that we have to take the appropriate steps to confront what has been a less visible but nonetheless devastating plague of sexual violence."
DeLeo said new regulations around the federal civil rights law Title IX, which the U.S. Department of Education released in May, add to the urgency.
In June, Attorney General Maura Healey and 17 of her counterparts filed a lawsuit over the new regulations, alleging that they strip away long-standing protections against sexual harassment. Federal education officials have said the new rules ensure an adjudication process for sexual misconduct allegations that is fair to all students involved.
DeLeo said the regulations "drastically restrict the ability of students to initiate actions" and "imperil the safety of our students."
"While we are hopeful that the November elections will bring change in Washington, we understand the necessity of actions to protect students," he said.