Officials Push Change In School Sex Assault Policies

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (center) meets with students following a round-table discussion.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (center) meets with students following a round-table discussion.

In an unfortunate sign of the times, parents and students compiling lists of college dream schools would be wise to look into each institution’s policies for reporting sexual assaults. Public and private colleges and universities often have different procedures in regards to investigating incidents and protecting victims, with some schools involving external law enforcement and others taking a more internal—some say, kangaroo court—approach to dealing with sexual assault cases.

From state schools to private universities throughout New York, a uniform plan of attack for preventing and dealing with sexual assaults on college campuses is the aim of new legislation being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration—legislation the governor wants to pass in this year’s budget vote on April 1.

The governor’s administration recently embarked on a campaign to drum up support for the bill. This campaign, dubbed “Enough is Enough,” is intended to help pass legislation in this year’s budget that will extend the previously adopted SUNY policy and protections for sexual assault victims to include all colleges and universities—public and private—in New York State. Making the laws more uniform will ensure that the state’s 1.2 million college students are protected with a uniform standard of procedures and guidelines to administer. These include a statewide affirmative consent policy, a statewide amnesty policy for reporting incidents of sexual assault, a Sexual Violence Victim/Survivor Bill of Rights, access to trained law enforcement and new training requirements for schools’ administrators and students alike—uniform policies that SUNY schools adopted in October 2014.

The “Enough is Enough” campaign also includes a website, www.ny.gov/safecampusny and a video featuring students, advocates and elected officials supporting the governor’s policy to address sexual assault on college campuses. In addition, a 24/7 hotline has been created for reporting sexual assaults on college and university campuses: 844-845-7269. This will be staffed around the clock by specially trained members to respond to calls throughout the state.

Last month, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul went on a statewide tour convening round-table discussions with students, advocates and administrators at various schools including LIU Post in Brookville. Hochul said the days of sexual assault perpetrators hiding behind college institutions have to end.

“We believe sexual assaults on college campuses should be handled by law enforcement,” she said. “We don’t understand why assaults occurring on the streets are handled differently than ones occurring behind the gates of college campuses. These are crimes and they have to be taken out of the college judiciary system. Every student in the state of New York needs to know that if you commit these acts you can end up in jail. Offenders think they can do what they want because they are on a college campus. That has to be addressed.”

And addressing such a process begins with changing the way offenders are dealt with, according to Hochul.

“There have been enough cases in the nation where a young person comes forward, let’s say a woman accuses an athlete of assault, and the school protects the athlete,” she said. “Do what is best for the survivor of the assault. In time, I believe we can help transform policies across the country. We can no longer sweep these incidents under the rug. And I believe New York can be a leader in changing the tide.”

Hochul has worked extensively with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for federal action against sexual assaults in colleges, but real change, Hochul believes, has to start at the state level.

“We’ve all seen how gridlock can consume Washington, DC. The state is in a better position to make changes faster,” she said. “We will adopt this bill in the next budget. How can anyone not support it? Even if you don’t have a daughter, do it as a human being.”

Area students are hoping the bill passes so that their schools will have to follow SUNY’s lead. According to www.campuscrime.ny.gov, a site set up by the governor to provide information regarding crime to students throughout the state, Hofstra University in Hempstead leads Nassau County in reported sexual assault cases with 44 incidents occurring both on campus and in residence halls between 2008 and 2012.

And those are just the reported cases. Hochul said in some instances, students choose not to report out of fear they will get in trouble for attending a party or participating in other unsanctioned activities. This is where the bill of rights comes into play.

“Students might have been breaking school policy by underage drinking,” she said. “This creates an environment where they are protected and they can come forward.”

Karla Bradley, a student activist at Hosftra, said the new legislation encourages students to report and feel empowered to know their options in the reporting process following a sexual assault.

“I feel that much of the lack of reporting stems from misinformation about what an individual’s rights are in that situation and also from a misunderstanding of what sexual assault and consent are,” she said. “Providing these definitions and outlining this process will be a huge step forward in ensuring that students feel informed on their rights and the options available to them.”

Survivors of sexual assaults and rape must feel protected and fairly represented by their school, said Hochul. Otherwise, the survivor’s feelings of isolation and victimization are made exponentially worse. A Stony Brook University student recently charged that this is precisely what happened to her.

Sarah Tubbs accused a fellow student of sexual assault in January 2014. According to published reports, when she went to campus police to file a report two days after the incident, she was sent to a campus disciplinary hearing where she was made to stand up to questioning by her alleged attacker. She is now suing the university over the way she said they handled the case.

Kayla Axelrod, a student at Stony Brook, said this isn’t just a Stony Brook problem, but rather, a problem at every university in America. She said she would like to see the conversation shift from protecting school integrity, to protecting the welfare of the students who inhabit the schools.

“In every class a college student takes, the first lecture spends a huge chunk of time talking about the consequences of plagiarism and the extreme importance of academic integrity,” she said. “There is no talk about Title IX, what sexual assault is, how to protect yourself and how you can contribute to protecting someone else against sexual abuse or rape. There is no talk about the integrity of speaking up when you see someone putting something in someone’s drink or intervening when someone is visibly uncomfortable due to someone’s behavior.”

The social work student said that this teaches students that their school is either ignoring potential sexual assaults or the institution just doesn’t feel it is an important conversation.

“The failure to have serious conversations about rape and the consequences of rape perpetuates rape culture as being a joke,” she said. “In a college setting, rape is rarely addressed in the reality of what it is—a crime. We need to change this and the policies that allow criminals to get away with rape.”

Once the new legislation passes, and Hochul is confident it will, instituting it in colleges should be a no-brainer.

“I have said, more openness will only serve to help schools,” she said. “If parents are looking into colleges to send their daughters, they would feel more secure sending students to a school where these policies are in place.”

Steve Mosco
Steve Mosco, the former editor-in-chief at Anton Media Group, is a columnist for Long Island Weekly's food and sports sections. He fancies himself a tastemaker, food influencer and king of all eaters.

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