Michigan legislature lags in sexual assault policy

Sunday, January 10, 2016 - 6:08pm

More like this

According to a new study done by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the number of states that considered legislation addressing sexual assault on campus in 2015 rose significantly compared in past years.

26 states considered legislation that addresses sexual assaults on campus in 2015, compared to six states the previous year.

Occurrences of sexual assault on college campuses are far from rare: in a Sept. 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, 23.1 percent of female college students reported they had experienced unwanted sexual contact during their college years, whether it be kissing, touching or unwanted penetrative sex.

AAU, an association made up of leading public and private universities, is primarily focused on higher education and the research agenda. But two years ago in response to the growing conversation surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, they decided to gather hard data on the subject.

Mollie Benz-Flounlacker, AAU’s associate vice president for federal relations, said the climate survey was an important first step.

“It put a lot of pressure on schools to do more and to do it better and faster. Because if you don’t have hard facts there isn’t much you can do.,”  Benz-Flounlacker said. “We feel very good about this first step and giving our campuses some real data on this issue.”

The state of Michigan and the University are no exception to these significant numbers — about 30 percent of undergraduate women at the University reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation during their time at the University. However, while the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has captured the attention of both federal and many state governments, who have taken action to combat sexual assaults on campus, in the state of Michigan, the formation of sexual assault policy is left up to individual universities.

Nationally, legislation requiring affirmative consent by both parties was considered by 13 states and ultimately passed in two. Six states discussed noting incidences of sexual assault on the perpetrators transcript and three states created legislation to have it noted under certain circumstances. Additionally, seven states enacted legislation to ensure victims have access to medical assistance — such as to Sexual Assault Forensic Examination kits — free to them on college campuses. Other legislation included mandatory Memorandum of Understanding which explain the roles of municipal governments and university administrations in the case of a sexual assault, requiring confidential advisors for students on campuses, mandatory periodic campus climate surveys, discussion of “Good Samaritan” provisions offering drug and alcohol amnesty to witnesses who report a sexual assault, and consideration of mandatory minimum punishments for perpetrators.

Michigan did not present any state laws regarding the above topics in recent years, and policies at individual universities vary. However, a $500,000 appropriation was approved by the state legislature last year for projects addressing the issue.

The appropriation, which universities across the state applied to in a competitive process, aimed to encourage students and school officials to work together to prevent sexual assault on their campuses through new initiatives.

At the University itself, the current policy on sexual misconduct has been in place since August 2013, though discussions about revisions to it are ongoing. The policy aims to explain how the University will handle student sexual misconduct, maintain their institutional values and meet legal obligations that fall under Title IX. Title IX is part of the Education Amendments adopted in 1972. It states that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…” which includes sexual misconduct as a form of sexual discrimination.

The University is among 124 higher education institutions currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for mishandling sexual assault cases, prompted by two Title IX complaints, one of which involved a 2009 sexual misconduct case against former Michigan football kicker Brendan Gibbons.

LSA senior Nico Espinosa, a peer educator at the University’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center, which is helping lead the revision process, said the organization is currently in the process of altering various parts of the policy. In particular, he said changes being made include changing some definitions and adding in more language to the policy, such as the definition of consent.

The University currently defines consent as an agreement expressed in either words or actions to engage in a particular activity.

“The previous policy didn’t enforce the verbal component as much as we did at SAPAC and we would like to include it because it came up in certain cases,” Espinosa said.

Overall, with the influx of data on campus sexual assaults, including AAU’s survey, Benz-Flounlacker said — as signalled by the rise in legislatures tackling the issue — policy changes are likely on the horizon.

“There is already a lot of national discussion about this issue. There needs to be more attention to this issue because this is a major problem on campuses,” Benz-Flounlacker said.