N.J. bills take aim at sexual assault on campuses

By Alexis Schulz

Colleges in New Jersey would have to report all allegations of sexual assault on campus or face a $10,000 civil penalty if a package of five bills discussed at a state Senate meeting last week becomes law.

State Sen. Peter Barnes, D-Edison, presented the bills after an increase in campus sexual assault awareness over the past few months brought many cases to media attention. Nationally, President Barack Obama has tried to raise understanding with the “It’s On Us” campaign and his White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, proposed a Campus Safety and Accountability Act.

More locally, cases such as the recent sexual assault allegations at Sayerville High School, the rape case of a woman at Hobart William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., and the fact that Princeton University is one of 53 colleges under investigation for its handling of sexual violence cases, have heightened recognition.

Barnes said stricter laws are needed in New Jersey to prevent future incidents.

“Do I think the issue of sexual assault is a problem in New Jersey?” Barnes asked at the Senate Higher Education Committee meeting Oct. 16. “Yes, I do.”

Barnes said that college should be a time for students to experience different things and improve themselves as individuals. He said something has to be done in order for students to feel safe and secure while getting their education.

“College should be an affirmative experience, it should be the time where you play a sport and maybe learn how to play an instrument; you learn how to do something different than you knew before,” said Barnes. “For those lucky enough to go to college, let’s face it, once you’re out, real life comes and work starts. That’s it until the time you retire or until you’re not healthy enough to work. College should be a time of experience, it should not be a time of worrying about sexual assault.”

Three experts from Rutgers University spoke at the hearing, and while they agreed with some aspects of the proposed bills, they had reservations about the wording of all five and offered to help improve the bills throughout the legislative process.

Sarah McMahon, assistant professor of social work from Rutgers, noted that even if these bills were put into effect, a college could not force a student to speak about an incident if he or she does not want to. Barnes agreed, saying he understands some students may not cooperate, but these bills are intended to stop sexual assault from occurring and to keep students safer than they are now.

The first bill Barnes introduced would impose a $10,000 penalty on any institution that fails to respond to and investigate an allegation of sexual assault by a student enrolled at the college against another student, and requires the institution to take proper disciplinary action.

The second bill requires school districts, nonpublic schools and colleges to report claims of sexual assault made by students and employees against other students and employees to law enforcement authorities. Barnes said many colleges have informed him that this bill will not work, but he believes it is crucial.

“I’ve been studying this bill for over a year,” he said. “This is the most controversial bill and I knew when I filed it that it would be controversial, and I had several colleges in New Jersey call and advise me that we do not need the bill, that the bill is counter-productive and does not do anything. But when local authority comes in and does their job, violence stops. No dean of students’ hearings or sweeping under the rug.”

At Rider, Debbie Stasolla, the associate vice president for planning who has been leading the university’s efforts to update sexual assault policies, said Rider applauds the Legislature’s attention to the issue because it is an issue taken very seriously on both campuses. However the university does have some concerns regarding this proposed bill.

“Of particular concern is the requirement that colleges report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement,” she said in an email. “This runs counter to the New Jersey Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights, which affords victims the right to choose whether or not to pursue the matter with law enforcement. We feel strongly that victims should retain that right. It also runs counter to recent guidance from the Office of Civil Rights that affords victims certain confidentiality rights.”

At the hearing Barnes countered this objection, brought up by others critical of the bill, saying that colleges and universities will have to report sexual assault allegations but a student victim will not have to speak directly to police if he or she does not want to.

“You cannot force the victim to cooperate,” said Barnes. “I know that as a lawyer who has handled criminal cases. You can never force a student to cooperate with police, it’s common sense. There might be a 14-year-old young girl who says ‘I don’t want to make a statement’, and that’s it, case over. You can never force someone to make a statement or force cooperation.”

The third bill requires colleges to appoint a victim’s advocate for any allegation of sexual assault for the duration of the case investigation. This advocate will help the victim be aware of available services such as medical treatment and counseling on and off campus. In the Hobart William Smith College rape case, Barnes said, if the young woman had had an advocate the case could have turned out differently.

“As it was, in the Hobart case, she had nowhere to turn to,” he said. “Hobart Smith College was not of any help, and as we now know swept the matter under the rug.”

In response to this bill, requiring a victim advocate, Stasolla said colleges and universities should have the authority to implement what they feel is best for students.

“While victim advocacy is an important component of any support system, colleges and universities should have the flexibility to determine how best to offer such assistance,” she said. “The designation of one individual to do so may be cost-prohibitive to some institutions which, like Rider, could instead work collaboratively with local organizations such as Womanspace, which is known throughout Mercer County for providing victim-centered services to women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence.”

Under the fourth bill, colleges must provide a hard copy of the previous year’s crime statistics to all who apply to that institution as well as publish all allegations of sexual assault made by students or employees on the institution’s website. Barnes said this bill would make students more aware of sexual assault activity on campus and would allow students to make informed decisions, and get the help they need, when involved with a case.

Stasolla said Rider does this already through its Clery report statistics which are reported annually on its website. Hard copies are also available.

“Rider is compliant with the Violence Against Women Act as it relates to reports of sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and stalking as part of our annual security statistics as evidenced in our latest Clery report,” she said. “We are concerned that further web-based reporting beyond that which institutions are already required to do, as some of the bills propose, may have the unintended effect of discouraging victims from reporting in the first place.”

Barnes’ last bill would establish a “New Jersey Sexual Assault Violence in Education Act” (NJ Save). This bill requires colleges to take measures to inform students about sexual assault and implement reporting requirements. More specifically, it states that a college must adopt an on-campus theater program to inform students about sexual violence. This program would be modeled after Rutgers’ “Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths” (Scream) theater program, where students interact with actors to raise awareness of sexual assault.

“Let’s face it, men are the perpetrators more often than not,” he said. “It would provide education for men to be aware that their fellow sisters attending school might be in trouble and maybe they should step up.”

Stasolla said Rider is also concerned about this bill, recommending that a college should be allowed to individualize its own program to suit its students’ needs.

“We believe that colleges and universities should have the flexibility to determine how best to implement the prevention and awareness programming on their campuses required by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act,” she said. “Here at Rider, we utilize a variety of different programming involving, for instance, online resources, outside groups and speakers, our own PHOCUS students, and creative programs associated with Domestic Violence Prevention, Alcohol Responsibility and Health and Wellness Weeks, among others.”

Barnes concluded his introduction to the package of bills by saying that many colleges care more about reputation than what is best for students on campus. He said it’s a sad truth but many students were raised in a generation used to obtaining everything they want all the time, and many were not brought up to be gentlemen. The bills he proposed try to combat this and make it less appealing for students to commit sexual crimes.

“If we can’t get a sexual assault act to be reported on campus, then what are we doing?” said Barnes. “According to the federal government, one in five women will be involved in a sexual assault on campus. Those numbers are too high to overlook.”

At the hearing Barnes countered this objection, brought up by others critical of the bill, saying that colleges and universities will have to report sexual assault allegations but a student victim will not have to speak directly to police if he or she does not want to.

“You cannot force the victim to cooperate,” said Barnes. “I know that as a lawyer who has handled criminal cases. You can never force a student to cooperate with police, it’s common sense. There might be a 14-year-old young girl who says ‘I don’t want to make a statement’, and that’s it, case over. You can never force someone to make a statement or force cooperation.”

The third bill requires colleges to appoint a victim’s advocate for any allegation of sexual assault for the duration of the case investigation. This advocate will help the victim be aware of available services such as medical treatment and counseling on and off campus. In the Hobart William Smith College rape case, Barnes said, if the young woman had had an advocate the case could have turned out differently.

“As it was, in the Hobart case, she had nowhere to turn to,” he said. “Hobart Smith College was not of any help, and as we now know swept the matter under the rug.”

In response to this bill, requiring a victim advocate, Stasolla said colleges and universities should have the authority to implement what they feel is best for students.

“While victim advocacy is an important component of any support system, colleges and universities should have the flexibility to determine how best to offer such assistance,” she said. “The designation of one individual to do so may be cost-prohibitive to some institutions which, like Rider, could instead work collaboratively with local organizations such as Womanspace, which is known throughout Mercer County for providing victim-centered services to women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence.”

Under the fourth bill, colleges must provide a hard copy of the previous year’s crime statistics to all who apply to that institution as well as publish all allegations of sexual assault made by students or employees on the institution’s website. Barnes said this bill would make students more aware of sexual assault activity on campus and would allow students to make informed decisions, and get the help they need, when involved with a case.

Stasolla said Rider does this already through its Clery report statistics which are reported annually on its website. Hard copies are also available.

“Rider is compliant with the Violence Against Women Act as it relates to reports of sexual assault, domestic and dating violence and stalking as part of our annual security statistics as evidenced in our latest Clery report,” she said. “We are concerned that further web-based reporting beyond that which institutions are already required to do, as some of the bills propose, may have the unintended effect of discouraging victims from reporting in the first place.”

Barnes’ last bill would establish a “New Jersey Sexual Assault Violence in Education Act” (NJ Save). This bill requires colleges to take measures to inform students about sexual assault and implement reporting requirements. More specifically, it states that a college must adopt an on-campus theater program to inform students about sexual violence. This program would be modeled after Rutgers’ “Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths” (Scream) theater program, where students interact with actors to raise awareness of sexual assault.

“Let’s face it, men are the perpetrators more often than not,” he said. “It would provide education for men to be aware that their fellow sisters attending school might be in trouble and maybe they should step up.”

Stasolla said Rider is also concerned about this bill, recommending that a college should be allowed to individualize its own program to suit its students’ needs.

“We believe that colleges and universities should have the flexibility to determine how best to implement the prevention and awareness programming on their campuses required by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act,” she said. “Here at Rider, we utilize a variety of different programming involving, for instance, online resources, outside groups and speakers, our own PHOCUS students, and creative programs associated with Domestic Violence Prevention, Alcohol Responsibility and Health and Wellness Weeks, among others.”

Barnes concluded his introduction to the package of bills by saying that many colleges care more about reputation than what is best for students on campus. He said it’s a sad truth but many students were raised in a generation used to obtaining everything they want all the time, and many were not brought up to be gentlemen. The bills he proposed try to combat this and make it less appealing for students to commit sexual crimes.

“If we can’t get a sexual assault act to be reported on campus, then what are we doing?” said Barnes. “According to the federal government, one in five women will be involved in a sexual assault on campus. Those numbers are too high to overlook.”

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