Legislation increases pressure on colleges to prevent, react to sexual assault

Last modified: 8/14/2014 2:53:26 PM
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte understands the issue from her perspective as a legislator and an attorney general. But it’s her experience as a mother that prompted Ayotte to co-sponsor a bill aimed at sexual assaults on college campuses.

Last week, the New Hampshire Republican helped unveil bipartisan legislation that would continue to put pressure on colleges to respond adequately to sexual assault reports, and to prevent incidents from happening in the first place.

“The focus of this legislation is to ensure that young women and young men who are victims of sexual assault know they will be treated with respect,” Ayotte said. “The more of these cases where victims feel safe reporting, the more perpetrators will be held accountable. . . . If someone thinks they can get away with sexual assault on campus and if a victim feels the investigation won’t be done properly or they won’t be supported, the instances are going to proliferate.”

She said the group working on the legislation spoke with many victims before introducing the bill, and a common theme that surfaced from the conversations was that some universities tended to dismiss or minimize allegations of sexual assault, or to investigate allegations without involving law enforcement personnel.

“The victims’ stories were very moving, and I’m always astounded by the courage and resilience they show,” Ayotte said. “They had the courage to step forward in this very public setting and tell their stories so other victims will be treated better than they were.”

The new bill will “make it in the schools’ immediate best interest to take proactive steps to protect their students and rid their campuses of sexual predators,” according to press releases.

In an April report from a White House task force, the University of New Hampshire was one of three schools highlighted as a successful model for combating sexual assault. Amy Culp, director of UNH’s Sexual Harassment And Rape Prevention Program, said sexual assault is often approached as a two-pronged issue. On one hand, schools must prevent assaults from happening before the fact and on the other, they need to provide an array of direct services to victims after it has occurred.

Culp said SHARPP representatives talk to new students and their parents during the summer orientation sessions and in the first days of the fall semester to help freshmen prepare for the six- to eight-week “red zone.” That’s when students are at the greatest risk for sexual assault at the beginning of their first year. The overall goals of this early outreach are to make students aware of the resources on campus and also to teach bystander intervention tactics that can prevent assaults in the first place, Culp said.

Zachary Ahmad-Kahloon of Dunbarton graduated from UNH in May after volunteering with SHARPP for four years. He will return in the fall to work full time as the male victim program coordinator and educator, and he said he believes the outreach work at the beginning of the year can make a difference in the way freshmen approach the issue for the rest of their time in college.

“At freshman orientation, some parents would give us a weird look when we said, ‘Oh, we have a really great sexual assault program on our campus.’ They start asking, ‘Is that a problem here? Do I need to be worried?’ ” said Ahmad-Kahloon, 22. “We tell them that sexual assaults happen here at the same rate they happen across the country, but we just have a solid system in place to help people who fall victim to it. That usually reassures them.”

The Clery Act, signed in 1990, requires colleges to disclose information about crime on and near their campuses, and the data is published online annually. Last week’s legislation would require that every student in the country be surveyed about their experiences with sexual violence, and the results would be published online as well to give parents and high school students an accurate picture of the campus climate. The Department of Education would also be required to publish names of all schools with pending investigations, final resolutions and voluntary resolution agreements related to Title IX, under the new bill.

Early education

The issue is multifaceted, but many area experts hope the push to address sexual assault at the college level will begin earlier, before students set foot on campus.

“I think at a basic level, all of us want to keep kids safe and eradicate these bad behaviors,” said Maureen McDonald, community relations director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, based in Concord. “But I think understanding the problem and connecting it to the societal issues that cause sexual assault, that enable someone to feel like they can have this power and control over another person, that’s big stuff.”

It’s more than just curbing drinking, McDonald said, and it will require a “cultural shift” that should really begin years earlier.

Marie Opie Williams, a family counselor at Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, said she believes parents can help decrease their students’ risk of sexual assault by helping them be aware of the issue and the resources available on their campuses.

“I would want the parents of both sons and daughters to be having those conversations with their kids, since both girls and boys are involved when this happens,” she said. “If I were a parent sending a kid off to college, I’d be reviewing with them the information we got from the university about policies and procedures. . . . I would be helping young men be really clear about what the rules, standards and expectations are.”

Opie Williams said she is hopeful that increased communication between parents and children will establish an understanding about these issues long before they’re at risk for experiencing them.

“We start having a lot of anti-bullying conversations with kids as early as elementary school,” she said. “Eventually, that same line of thinking – respect each other, communicate problems – applies to sexual assault conversations when they’re older.”

(Ann Marie Jakubowski can be reached at 369-3302 or ajakubowski@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @AMJakubowski.)

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