Mount Holyoke students advocate for state-wide sexual assault bill

BY KATE TURNER ’21

There has never been a standardized body of data collected about sexual assault on college campuses. However, a new bill in the Massachusetts state legislature, H.2998, is attempting to change all that. 

H.2998, which was recently approved by the Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Committee on Higher Education, would establish a task force that is focused on the distribution of sexual assault climate surveys to all college campuses in Massachusetts. 

“This bill would be the first of its kind in the entire country,” said Liz Brown ’20, chair of the Women’s Caucus for the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDM) and an active member of Mount Holyoke College Democrats. “We hope that its passage would create a ripple effect across the country and really bring about a wave of legislation addressing the challenges brought forward in by #MeToo.” 

It is partially the absence of accurate and consistent statistics that makes sexual assault such a difficult issue to address. Insufficient studies have only served to acknowledge the existence of a major problem in campus culture across the country.

“For some time we have known that sexual assaults occur with alarming frequency at colleges and universities, but very little has been done about it,” Anthony Herbert from Bridgewater State University told the Joint Higher Education Committee in 2015. Herbert was one of several students to testify before the committee, according to the Every Voice Coalition, a group created specifically by students to advocate for the bill.  “A climate survey will help us better understand the issue.”

According to national statistics gathered by organizations such as RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and Know Your IX (a national student and survivor-led advocacy group), approximately one in five women and one in 16 men will be victims of sexual assault during their time in college. Although there is no comprehensive work on the subject, similar studies suggest that students of color, LGBT students, and gender non-conforming students are disproportionately affected by sexual violence on college campuses.

Recently, these numbers have steadily risen, even while studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that less than 10 percent of victims actually report instances involving rape or assault to outside authorities. The American Medical Association called sexual assault on campuses a “silent epidemic,” and the Center for Disease Control & Prevention admitted in its guidelines on sexual assault prevention that “few programs have been shown to prevent sexual violence perpetration” and that “little is known about what works to prevent sexual violence.” 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, survivors are becoming more vocal about issues of sexual assault, both on and off college campuses. However, the lack of data is crippling to institutions attempting to adjust their policies to protect their students. “Despite a widespread consensus that sexual assault climate surveys are a key step toward preventing sexual assault on our campuses, there has been no centralized effort to create and implement standardized and high-quality campus climate surveys,” according to the website of the Every Voice Coalition.

“Currently,” said Brown, “there is no system to compare schools or to hold them accountable. States need some way to track this data, and the bill would start to change all that.”

According to Brown, H.2998 has been a project of the CDM Women’s Caucus for about a year now. Before that, however, the legislation was initially proposed to the Massachusetts Senate in 2015, and has been a project of the Every Voice Coalition since 2014.

The Every Voice Coalition makes it clear on their website that the goal of the bill is not to solve the problem of sexual assault or even to gather all the available data on the subject. Instead, its goal is to begin to answer questions about the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses and the specific demographics it affects. 

Since its formation, the bill has passed in the Massachusetts Senate and is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee. “The issue is getting people to act,” Brown explained. “It’s actually very bipartisan, and we’re lucky to live in such a progressive state where it does have so much support. It’s just convincing people of the urgency.”

“The hardest part is at this very moment,” she said. “Once it gets past Ways and Means and on to the House floor, we should have enough momentum for it to pass.” To that end, Brown and several other Mount Holyoke students are traveling to Boston this Thursday, Feb. 22, to speak directly to the Ways and Means Committee about the bill. “We’re really trying to put students’ faces to the legislation,” Brown said. 

“I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to advocate for something I feel so passionate about,” said Lily James ’21, who will be accompanying Brown. “This bill would affect every current college student and every [student] in the future, even if someone has never experienced sexual assault.”

“We need initial information from all of the colleges in Massachusetts in order to create an effective plan to combat sexual assault,” said Lili Paxton ’21, another student traveling to Boston on Thursday. “By meeting with lawmakers in person, we can demonstrate our commitment to finding effective ways to end sexual assault on college campuses.”

“We are taking concrete, real life steps to create change,” James said. 

Brown encourages students hoping to support H.2998 to get in touch with Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, as well as other members of the Massachusetts Ways and Means Committee. “We’re thinking of planning a rally in April,” said Brown, “trying to give the Bill the momentum it needs to get to the House floor. This is something that’s really going to be important for colleges all across the state, and Mount Holyoke in particular.”

“This bill would start the process of giving justice to a lot of victims,” said Brown. “And things are looking very good.”

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