N.H. college students push for sexual assault law

  • Gov. Chris Sununu signs HB 705 - that increases protections for sexual assault victims on college campuses - into law, while Sen. Jeb Bradley and Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien watch on July 20, 2020. NH State House—Courtesy photo

  • Gov. Chris Sununu (center) poses with Sen. Jeb Bradley, Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien, former Concord student Ana Goble and Pamela Keilig, from the NH Coalition for Domestic and Sexual Violence after signing HB 705, legislation that increases protections for sexual assault victims on college campuses, into law on July 20, 2020.  NH State House—Courtesy photo

  • Dartmouth College first-year David Millman testifies before the senate judiciary committee in Concord, New Hampshire on Feb. 20, 2020. David Millman—Courtesy photo

  • Members of the Every Voice Coalition at the New Hampshire State House for a hearing on a campus sexual assault bill on Feb. 20, 2020. Courtesy of David Millman

  • Every Voice Coalition co-founders John Gabrieli and Ivy Lee speak at the Every Voice summit at Harvard Law School on Feb. 23, 2019. John Gabrieli—Courtesy photo

Monitor staff
Published: 2/20/2021 7:32:47 PM

On a Thursday morning in late February 2020, first-year Dartmouth College student David Millman traveled from Hanover to Concord to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He hitched a ride with State Rep. Garrett Muscatel, who was on his way to work.

Millman and other advocates gathered in Room 100 of the New Hampshire State House. On the table was Senate Bill 679 that, if passed, would provide comprehensive protections to victims of campus sexual assault.

In his testimony, Millman recalled overhearing a male floormate, who already had several reports filed against him that were being investigated under federal Title IX equal protection laws, talking about some of Millman’s female friends. “Let’s get them so drunk that they can’t say no,” he said.

“The more I talk to people, the more I realize that it’s not a unique experience at all. Everyone I talk to has either been impacted or knows someone who has been impacted by sexual violence,” Millman told committee members. “This bill does a lot of amazing things, but ensuring a fair and timely investigation and the counseling that this bill provides in particular, would have vastly improved the experiences of the victims on my floor.”

Laying the groundwork

In January, New Hampshire’s bill relative to sexual assault and sexual misconduct in institutions of higher education went into effect, giving the Granite State what experts say is the most comprehensive legislation of its kind in the country. The bill, which was signed in July, passed in six months with bipartisan support against seemingly unlikely odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was really amazing to see just how many student leaders were really dedicated to improving the climate on college campuses,” said Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “It was especially extraordinary to see so many young people involved in the policy process.”

The students who led the effort are part of a volunteer-run organization called the Every Voice Coalition, founded by Massachusetts college students in 2014, that now exists in several states.

“It’s our deeply held belief that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power, and students and survivors should be part of crafting their own solution,” said John Gabrieli, one of the co-founders of Every Voice. “As opposed to students and survivors sitting around and waiting for legislators or policymakers to solve this problem, students and survivors were able to take this problem into their own hands.”

Nationwide, 20.4% of women on college campuses, 5.1% of men and 20.3% of transgender and non-binary students experienced sexual assault in 2019, according to data from the Association of American Universities. In a 2019 survey conducted by Inside HigherEd, just 51% of university presidents said they were well prepared to handle issues of campus sexual assault.

“I think even the best-intentioned administrators and lawmakers aren’t seeing the full extent of the problem, in part because there is so much silence around it and in part because they aren’t the ones on campus,” Gabrieli said. “At its heart, the Every Voice Bill is a cry from students who have been silenced and ignored for a long time, to say ‘we need access to these basic protections and we need these protections now.’ ”

Gaps in protection

Title IX, passed in 1972, bans sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. The U.S. Dept. of Education has established guidance that sexual assault and harassment fall under the umbrella of sexual discrimination, meaning schools are required to address those offenses.

Many victim advocates said the federal changes from former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos left gaps as a result of fewer protections guaranteed to survivors. The looser guidelines give schools more freedom to offer an informal resolution process, to use a case standard that would demand heavier proof of guilt, and loosen the rules around cross-examination during a live hearing. New Hampshire’s “Every Voice Bill” was crafted to provide greater protections for survivors at the state level where it isn’t specified in DeVos’s federal guidelines.

New Hampshire’s legislation requires institutions to work closely with local crisis centers and law enforcement, provide anti-retaliation protections for reporting parties, and collect and make transparent campus safety data. It also requires fair and timely investigations, awareness and prevention training for students and staff.

“This legislation was so significant because these best practices had never been codified into law before, and so this was an incredible opportunity to really strengthen the protections for sexual assault survivors on college campuses,” said Keilig. “The guidelines are often subject to change based on the federal rules and regulations. This created a really significant opportunity to make sure that the practices were codified here in New Hampshire to create some stability here depending on if federal regulations change.”

Students began drafting the legislation in the fall of 2019. It was signed into law eight months later. For those getting involved in the legislative process for the first time, it was an unexpected success.

Dartmouth junior Sophia Miller joined Every Voice after a classmate invited her to a meeting on campus. Miller had high hopes for the bill, but also knew that Massachusetts students were trying unsuccessfully to pass similar legislation for six years.

“I think just knowing that history, I was definitely a little bit surprised we were able to pass it,” Miller said. “Having the bill pass so quickly, to me, it felt like people were listening and taking it to heart, which was great.”

That fall, Gabrieli drove to Dartmouth to meet students. They would sit around a table in one of the college’s study rooms for hours, talking about what protections were needed, going through the legal language and beginning to write the legislation. They got similar input from students at Keene State, UNH, Rivier University and SNHU.

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, who agreed to sponsor the bill, was almost too busy to take it on. She was chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time, and juggling many other bills. But she said her own experiences as an assault survivor and member of the first class of women at Dartmouth College, moved her to agree, and so did the dedication of the students.

“Having young people who are passionate about this subject go to as many House members as they could and talk about this bill made a lot of impact,” Hennessey said. “It was young people who were taking this on themselves with incredible professionalism and grace and inclusiveness that I think was essential to this process in many ways.”

Fourteen Democrats and six Republicans co-signed the bill. It was important to Every Voice to get bipartisan voices backing their efforts.

“We feel very strongly that sexual violence is a non-partisan issue,” Gabrieli said. “No matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, you or someone you know almost certainly has been impacted by sexual violence. We support taking a common-sense approach that this is a public health issue.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but just when it was set to head to the House, unforeseen circumstances struck. COVID-19 arrived in New Hampshire in March, shutting down the Legislature until June, with bills backlogging.

“Everything went virtual, it wasn’t clear if the whole session was going to be ended, it wasn’t clear if any more actions were going to be taken,” Gabrieli said. “I think that was a hard blow for all the students and advocates and survivors who worked on this, because progress had been so strong and everything was going well.”

A second chance

In June, the bill got a second chance at life. Senators circumvented the missed deadlines brought about by the pandemic by packing the “Every Voice” bill into an omnibus bill (HB 705) along with other pieces of sexual assault legislation that had already passed in the House.

When they heard the bill was back in action, the students, working from home, hurriedly began a push to phone all of New Hampshire’s 400 state representatives and 24 senators. They made a massive spreadsheet and asked their friends to call.

Millman said he personally called every state senator and a lot of representatives.

“I was messaging all my friends like, ‘Hey, there’s this bill, can you please call in?’ ” Millman said. “My friends … they were all excited to call, too, because I think everyone cares about this issue.”

The students were in Every Voice’s virtual summer fellowship in late June with other advocates from around the country when the news came in that the bill had passed the House and the Senate. For the New Hampshire students, it was a proud moment.

“For the state to take a step that not a lot of states have taken so far and to pass this legislation, to me it feels like legislators listening to student voices and that is really gratifying,” Miller said.

Now, as implementation efforts get underway, student advocates in other states are taking inspiration from New Hampshire’s bill. Similar legislation has already been filed in Connecticut, Illinois and Hawaii, and student movements are growing in New Mexico and Virginia. And after six years of trying, Massachusetts passed “An Act relative to sexual violence on higher education campuses” into law in January.

Millman said the whole experience has made him more optimistic about politics, and the possibility of bipartisanship.

“It’s hard to put into words what it means,” Millman said. “It’s mind-boggling how impactful students were in getting this passed. It really is just a testament to how powerful student voices can be, especially in the legislative process on a local and state level.”

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