N.H. passes comprehensive reform to combat sexual violence on college and university campuses

  • In this photo taken Wednesday April 6, 2016 students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The water system serving the University is among more than two dozen in New Hampshire that have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once in the last three years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 7/26/2020 8:31:28 PM

New Hampshire has enacted one of the most comprehensive laws in the country to combat campus sexual violence just weeks before controversial federal requirements are set to take effect on how schools investigate and respond to cases of gender-based harassment and assault.

The legislation is the first in the Granite State’s history specifically aimed at curbing rape and sexual assault by requiring institutions to work more closely with local crisis centers and law enforcement, providing anti-retaliation protections for reporting parties, mandating transparent data collection and awareness programming. The bill also requires colleges and universities to appoint for the first time a confidential resource adviser to help survivors understand their options and inform them of critical support services, including academic and residential life accommodations, counseling and reporting avenues, both through the school’s disciplinary process and under state law.

New Hampshire was one of 30 states with no legislation in place regarding sexual violence on college campuses. Today, Granite State students, survivors and advocates responsible for drafting the bill and working with lawmakers to fight for its passage say they hope the process they spearheaded will serve as a model for other states embarking on a similar endeavor.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that we as students can make this type of difference,” David Millman, a rising sophomore at Dartmouth College, said in a recent phone interview. “I’m personally excited to see what opportunities there are to engage in a similar effort in my home state of Virginia. I was born and raised in Richmond, and I want to see how I can make a difference and get the bill passed here, too.”

Millman volunteered with New Hampshire’s chapter of the Every Voice Coalition, a student and survivor-led organization that started in Massachusetts and has since expanded to places like Connecticut, Illinois and Hawaii. Millman said he saw firsthand how his friends struggled with a “convoluted process” for reporting an assault to Dartmouth’s Title IX office, and was struck by Every Voice’s mission to help students stand together to create meaningful change and improve survivors’ experiences.

“It’s important for everyone to recognize that sexual violence is a human issue and everyone is affected by it,” Millman said. “I came into college focused on environmental science and thought I had ‘my issue’ but Every Voice changed that for me. It’s really impacted what I do on campus; for example, I joined the school’s Student Advisory Board for sexual violence prevention programming. In the future, I definitely want to pursue different opportunities to help.”

Every Voice teamed up with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence last fall to work with students like Millman on college campuses throughout the state to draft comprehensive reform, which took shape in an initial bill filed by Sen. Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat. Due to legislative changes mandated in response to COVID-19, the measure was later folded into an omnibus sexual assault protections bill, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law on July 20.

In an interview last week, John Gabrieli, founder and co-chairman of Every Voice, said colleges and universities have a 180-day window from the date the bill was signed to update their policies. The bill also creates a task force on sexual misconduct, whose members include the chancellor of the community college system, two representatives of private four-year colleges, as well as state education officials, the commissioner for the Department of Health and Human Services and the attorney general or his designee. The task force is charged with developing a climate survey that collects school-level data on students’ attitudes and experiences related to sexual assault, in addition to the prevalence of cases. It will be distributed to institutions by March 2021 and completed every two years.

“Hundreds of colleges report zero rape cases each year and we know that doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening on campuses,” Gabrieli said. “It’s really important to shed an accurate light on the problem to help schools and policymakers alike assess the problem and develop an informed response.”

One in three women and one in four men experience sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes, according to the coalition. It is estimated that one in every 10 college students in the Granite State experiences sexual assault.

Kathryn Kiefer, the coordinator of the New Hampshire Campus Consortium Against Sexual and Interpersonal Violence, said that while the majority of campuses complete some form of a campus climate survey, the new legislation will provide an avenue for that survey to be more standardized. With campuses asking students many of the exact same questions, the information and data generated from the surveys can be easily compared across the state, she said.

“Some campuses are very well resourced in doing campus climate surveys, and others that are not as well resourced struggle to do them without partnerships, like with help from a grant or as part of the statewide effort made possible by this legislation.”

Similarly, many colleges and universities have existing memorandums of understanding with their local crisis centers, who assist in developing training, programming and policies, and provide a free and confidential support option off-campus for students and staff. The new legislation provides an opportunity for institutions to revisit those agreements and make sure they address current realities and needs, Kiefer said.

“There has also been a very focused effort in recent years to reach out to the community colleges and have them create MOUs, as well,” Kiefer said, noting that work was made possible by a three-year grant. “A lot of times people think about the bigger colleges like Dartmouth and Plymouth State and Keene (State) but the community colleges have also laid the groundwork.”

The campus consortium is a statewide collaborative association of colleges, universities and community partners that includes the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the state’s crisis centers and the Attorney General’s Office. As its coordinator, Kiefer provides informational resources, technical support and training that helps the consortium carry out its mission of implementing comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies to end sexual violence. She said sometimes that work can be as simple as providing institutions with a template to draft an MOU or as involved as developing local recommendations in response to new federal Title IX regulations, the latest of which take effect Aug. 14.

Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination by schools that receive federal financial assistance. From time to time, the education department issues guidance explaining how schools should comply with existing law. Guidance issued in 2011 under the Obama administration was tied, in part, to what is known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, which was issued amid troubling reports of the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses and in the wake of growing activism by students who decried schools for ignoring the problem.

In order to comply with Title IX, the Obama administration directed schools to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when deciding cases of sexual harassment and assault. That shifted the burden from the accusers to the accused, who would be found responsible if it was more likely than not a violation occurred. Now, the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are being accused of rolling back protections and shifting the pendulum in favor of the accused.

Given the changes nationally, the overwhelming bipartisan support for comprehensive reform in the Granite State comes at a particularly poignant moment, Gabrieli said.

“Students and survivors need to be at the center of conversations about how to solve sexual violence in this country. This legislation is a model example of what’s possible,” he said. “By strengthening its state-level support and protections, New Hampshire is setting a new bar for the rest of the country to follow.”

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