My Turn: The story of a campus sexual violence bill

For the Monitor
Published: 7/24/2020 7:00:14 AM

On July 20, House Bill 705 was signed into law – and with a stroke of the pen, New Hampshire became a national leader in the fight to end campus sexual violence.

The Every Voice bill, which I am proud to have filed, enacts sweeping measures to keep students safe – and it couldn’t be more timely. With the new federal rollback of Title IX set to take effect in August, this was New Hampshire’s last chance to combat sexual violence on our campuses before the start of the school year.

The most transformative aspect of the Every Voice bill, which I filed as Senate Bill 679 but was folded into the omnibus sexual assault protections bill (House Bill 705), however, may not be any of the critical measures contained in the bill but rather how the legislation itself came to be.

The story of SB 679 began back in October 2019, when I received a call from John Gabrieli, co-chair of a group of students and young alumni called the Every Voice Coalition. When John asked if I would be interested in discussing legislation on the subject of campus sexual violence, my plate was already more than full for the upcoming legislative session, and to be honest, I didn’t expect the meeting would amount to much.

But as a survivor of sexual violence on a campus myself, I wanted to hear what they had to say. When they told me their stories, I knew their fight would become my fight, and I was going to do what I could to help get their bill passed into law.

As chair of the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee, I hear pitches every single day, but I couldn’t say no to this one – for two reasons.

The first was the substance of their bill, which included urgent reforms like providing legal support services to survivors of sexual violence, mandating transparent data collection on sexual violence, and providing prevention education to every single student.

The second reason this bill stood out was the people who brought it to me.

Every Voice sounded like a nonprofit advocacy group, but in truth it was a group of passionate recent and current college student volunteers with a mission: passing student-driven legislation to combat campus sexual violence. Their case was simple, yet radical – students and survivors are the ones being impacted by campus sexual violence, so they should be the ones to help identify new solutions. For years, the voices of student survivors had been ignored and silenced. Now, students and survivors would rise up to create the change they wanted to see on their own campuses.

This vision resonated deeply with me because of my own experience as a college student. Over the past year, New Hampshire students have been involved every step of the way in drafting and advocating for the Every Voice bill. At Dartmouth, I met with students who provided me with feedback on core components of the legislation. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February, I listened to students and alumni from schools all over the state tell our legislators why this bill, SB 679, was so important.

From UNH to Keene State, St. Anselm to Plymouth State, New Hampshire students took up the call to action and led the movement for change. During this time, the Every Voice Coalition stepped up again and again to move the bill forward, from identifying and reaching out to secure 20 bipartisan co-sponsors for the legislation to making thousands of phone calls in support of this initiative as it worked its way from the Senate to the House to the governor’s desk.

Passing legislation is never easy, especially with a topic as charged as sexual violence, but whenever these students faced an obstacle, they persisted. When the U.S. Department of Education ignored them, they spoke out. When misogynist hate groups opposed them, they stood strong. And now, in the midst of a national pandemic, they have helped push our state toward a brighter future.

As I close in on my own retirement from the New Hampshire Legislature, this bottom-up model of change gives me renewed hope for the future. The Every Voice bill was written by students and survivors for students and survivors – and now, it will change the lives of students and survivors for generations to come. That is how our democracy is supposed to work. In the midst of all of the pain and suffering in our country at this moment, this victory is proof that if we work for them, better days really are ahead of us.

The leaders of tomorrow aren’t waiting their turn. They’re bringing about change in the halls of power today. And if these young advocates can pass legislation as consequential as this in a purple state like New Hampshire, I have no doubt they’ll soon be protecting survivors of sexual violence all across the country.

(Sen. Martha Hennessey represents District 4 – Canaan, Charlestown, Claremont, Cornish, Enfield, Hanover, Lebanon, Lyme, and Plainfield – in the New Hampshire Senate.)


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