State legislators propose bills to combat sexual assault on campus

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 9:40pm

Last week, Michigan lawmakers of the Progressive Women's Caucus proposed new legislation to fight sexual assault.

Last week, Michigan lawmakers of the Progressive Women's Caucus proposed new legislation to fight sexual assault. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Last week, the Michigan lawmakers of the Progressive Women’s Caucus proposed new legislation to fight sexual assault and bolster resources available to victims in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the trial of Larry Nassar, the disgraced former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who was convicted of sexual assault of former patients last month. The University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats responded positively to the initiative.

Public Policy junior Lauren Schandevel, communications director of College Democrats, said the proposed legislation was an improvement over current policy.

“We’re thrilled to see our representative stepping forward to highlight some of the legislative gaps in our state’s approach to sexual assault,” she said. “Our survivors deserve better than what our current policies offer.”

The University’s chapter of College Republicans did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

The package of bills takes a multifaceted approach to changing how universities and the state respond to reports of sexual assault. The legislation would extend the statute of limitations on cases with victims who are under 16 years old, increase Title IX resources available to survivors and expand sexual assault prevention and education programs. It would also establish a Title IX ombudsman at the state’s Department of Civil Rights, who would work to protect college students who report sexual assault from intimidation and retaliation.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, chairwoman of the Progressive Women’s Caucus, said several of the bills have already been introduced and are awaiting hearings. Others are still in the process of being drafted.

“The Progressive Women’s Caucus wants to let every survivor know: we stand with you, we see you and we support you,” Chang said in a statement. “For too long, survivors of sexual assault on college campuses have been ignored, threatened and censored into silence. Time is up and we need to take action at the Capitol. I am optimistic that our efforts in collaboration with legislators on both sides of the aisle will result in real change for women and girls in Michigan.”

LSA sophomore Hannah Katz, who is co-chair of College Democrats’ FemDems committee, said sexual assault is commonly seen as a women’s issue, even though men are victims as well because the “vast majority of sexual assault survivors are women.”

“While men do get sexually assaulted, and it’s important to acknowledge and believe their stories and experiences, women are systematically targeted due to rape culture and rigid standards of masculinity,” Katz said. “With that said, sexual assault is absolutely a societal issue, and the pervasiveness of sexual assault will not go away unless we’re all willing to have a conversation about how sexual assault affects all of us.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and more than 90 percent of victims on college campuses do not report the assault.

Katz said changes need to be made at colleges and universities to combat the issue.

“First of all, universities should actually handle reports of sexual assault,” she said. “Currently, survivors who approach universities have difficulty getting them to take any action at all. I believe that the most important part of handling reports of sexual assault is giving the survivor autonomy and control over how the report is handled.”

The University’s annual sexual misconduct report showed a 40 percent increase in 2017 in the number of misconduct reports filed the previous year. From July 2016 to June 2017, 218 reports of prohibited conduct were filed with the Office for Institutional Equity, which conducted 28 investigations during that time and concluded eight policy violations had occurred over the past year, including five sexual assaults, two incidents of stalking and a violation of interim measures.

According to the report, OIE took disciplinary action, including educational measures, employment restriction, suspension and expulsion. At the February Regents Meeting, President Schlissel announced the hiring of an “outside expert” to review the University’s sexual misconduct reporting process.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center offers support to survivors and helps students through the reporting process. SAPAC Director Kaaren Williamsen said there are many reasons why a student may choose not to report a sexual assault, citing the results of the University’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey.

“Most students who responded said they did not want to get the person in trouble, or they blamed themselves,” Williamsen said. “A significant number also felt embarrassed or ashamed, they did not think the U-M would do anything, or did not believe the incident was serious enough to merit a report.”

Williamsen said since that 2015 survey, SAPAC has increased its services, which include academic, legal, medical and housing advocacy from staff professionals. In addition to a peer-led support group and workshops, SAPAC also offers Advocate Chat, an online forum where survivors can get answers to their questions from trained interns, and access a 24/7 crisis line.

“We are here to help any survivor address their worries, feel supported, and then make a decision about reporting,” she said. “Whether a student decides to report or not, our Advocates can also provide and are available to listen, provide resources, answer questions and offer support.”

Last fall, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reversed Obama-era guidelines for how colleges handle sexual assault, saying that she was trying to balance the rights of the students accused of sexual assault with those of the students accusing them.

Katz disagreed with DeVos’s suggestion that colleges had gone too far in creating systems that treat the accused unfairly.

“While I believe that the very few falsely accused should not be punished, this issue is a red herring meant to diminish the voices of those who speak out against perpetrators of sexual violence,” she said. “Nothing is more important than believing the voices and stories of survivors. No one is concerned with those falsely accused of murder, armed robbery, etc. This proves that DeVos is not advocating for justice — she’s advocating to silence women.”

The Michigan lawmakers who are pushing forward the new legislation said that this change makes the timing of their efforts “even more critical.”

State Rep. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, vice-chairwoman of Progressive Women’s Caucus, said sexual assault can be “derailing” for survivors.

“Our college campuses must be safe havens where people can learn and grow, without fear for their safety or well-being,” she said. “Unfortunately, that has not been the case as predators like Larry Nassar have been given free reign throughout our state’s academic institutions.”

Katz said factors beyond institutional guidelines can make survivors’ situations even more difficult, noting tight-knit campus communities can complicate a survivor’s willingness to report and women of color and women who identify as LGBT are more likely to be targeted by sexual predators.

“While the #MeToo movement has broken ground for survivors being treated with compassion and respect, there has long been a stigma around victimhood and survivorhood of sexual assault,” she said. “I do believe that there are large cultural issues at play: toxic masculinity, rape culture, incomprehensive and inaccurate sexual education and gender roles are all examples of pervasive issues in society that determine how women are treated.”