Legislators are considering two bills that supporters say would strengthen policies and procedures related to sexual assaults at colleges and universities across New Jersey.
A bill that calls for the creation of a state campus sexual assault commission, S3414, was passed unanimously by the Senate Higher Education Committee on Nov. 30.
The commission would be responsible for furthering the work of the state’s task force on campus sexual assault that was established in 2015. The commission would be required to study and evaluate emerging issues, policies, and practices concerning campus sexual assault; monitor the response to, and implementation of, the recommendations put forth in the report issued by the task force; supplement the findings and recommendations of the report issued by the task force; develop and administer, in consultation with the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education, a campus climate survey every three years; and develop an action plan every three years that includes policies, programs, or procedures responsive to the issues and needs identified in campus climate surveys.
Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham (D-Jersey City) said the formation of the commission was one of 20 recommendations made in a June report by the state’s Sexual Assault Task Force. The report was commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie.
“I think there’s always a need for this, because you read about what happens in the newspapers every day and we see what’s happening to young women specifically,” Cunningham said after the committee session Thursday. “I am hoping this bill can be one of the things that is used to find out what’s going on, and then do something about it.”
Susan Stahley, the sexual assault prevention education coordinator at Rider University, said the legislation affirms and supports the outcome of the work of New Jersey Sexual Assault Task Force. “If passed, it would be another step forward in bringing awareness and fair resolution to sexual assault allegations,” she said.
Sen. Tom Kean, a primary sponsor of the legislation, said the passing of the bill will be important given the current national conversation surrounding alleged predatory sexual behavior by celebrities and other prominent figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.
“We’re experiencing a national awakening that I hope will discourage and prevent future abuses like those that have been reported recently in the news and entertainment industries and in the halls of government,” Kean said. “I’m proud of all of the victims who came forward. Their strength now empowers our efforts to fight a toxic culture on our campuses and in our workplaces that has protected predatory behavior for too long.”
Kean said the campus sexual assault commission would allow for the ongoing study and evaluation of emerging issues, policies, and practices concerning campus sexual assault.“It’s critical that we prevent the development of predatory patterns early,” he said.
The commission would be comprised of five public members appointed by the governor, including a representative of state colleges and universities, a representative of the public research universities, a representative of the county colleges, a representative of the independent colleges and universities, and a representative of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault; and four public members with demonstrated expertise or interest in issues related to the work of the commission, including at least one individual who is a campus sexual assault survivor.
The Senate Higher Education Committee also unanimously passed S3488, a bill that “requires institutions of higher education to use procedures in response to allegations of sexual harassment that are consistent with certain federal guidance and to report incidence of sexual assault.”
In the wake of Betsy DeVos’ Sept. 22 announcement that she planned to revise Title IX guidelines for colleges, this bill would require colleges in New Jersey to follow the guidelines set by former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration that DeVos later withdrew.
The Title IX guidelines set by the Obama administration in 2011 required colleges to use the lowest possible standard of proof — a preponderance of evidence — when evaluating sexual assault cases. One of DeVos’ major changes to college Title IX guidelines is giving greater due process rights to the accused. Advocates for the previous guidelines claim that the “preponderance of evidence” is necessary because it encourages victims to come forward, and incidents of sexual violence often go unreported.
“Providing a safe environment for college and university students who chose our institutions of higher education is not only the moral thing to do, but the right thing to do to protect against the federal government actions,” said Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-Camden), a primary sponsor of the bill.
Beginning with the 2018-2019 academic year, each public and independent institution of higher education would be required to report to the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education the total number of allegations of sexual assault made by or made against a student enrolled in the institution, a summary of its efforts in responding to such allegations, and any new or revised procedures, policies, or programs implemented in the prior year to address campus sexual assault.
Princeton University representatives also did not comment on the legislation. Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said research shows that one in four women will experience sexual violence during their college years.
“We are appreciative of the legislators and policy-makers who share in our commitment of keeping campus communities as safe as possible,” she said. “As co-chair of the Campus Sexual Assault Task Force, I look forward to working with key stakeholders and expert practitioners working on these issues.”