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Gillibrand, Hochul tout sexual violence prevention legislation in visit to UB

Taking part in the roundtable discussion were, from left, Sharon Nolan-Weiss, Minahil Khan, Kathy Hochul and Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo: David J. Hill

By DAVID J. HILL

Published March 5, 2015

“Sexual assault prevention needs to be everyone’s responsibility.”
Sharon Nolan-Weiss, director
UB Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul hosted a roundtable discussion at UB’s Center for Tomorrow earlier this week to talk about new legislation aimed at combating sexual violence on college campuses across America.

Last week, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reintroduced a strengthened version of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which she says will improve how colleges report and respond to sexual violence on their campuses while ensuring that campus leaders and law enforcement receive additional training on handling victims’ cases.

Gillibrand and Hochul convened Monday’s roundtable to outline the legislation and hear from college students and sexual violence survivors, as well as representatives from community organizations, law enforcement, and public and private colleges across Western New York. In all, nearly three dozen stakeholders were seated at the table.

After visiting Buffalo, Gillibrand and Hochul headed to Rochester and Syracuse to conduct similar roundtable discussions at college campuses in those cities. Gillibrand said the legislation she proposed will make it easier for victims to come forward. “The most important thing that we hope this bill does is empower survivors to tell their story,” she said.

Hochul said the idea is to bring the issue of sexual violence on campus to the forefront, much like drinking and driving. “Let’s elevate this issue to that same degree of awareness,” Hochul said, later adding: “We have to treat this as if it happened on a city street. Just because you walked past a sign that says ‘Welcome to Campus,’ you are not afforded any more protections than someone out on the street who attacks a man or a woman. There are consequences that’ll haunt you the rest of your life if you cross the line.”

UB and SUNY have been recognized as leaders in combating sexual violence on campus. In December, SUNY adopted a uniform sexual assault prevention and response policy for all its campuses, one of the first of its kind in the country. Dennis Black, UB vice president for university life and services, and Jim Jarvis, associate counsel at UB, served on the SUNY Working Group that developed the system-wide policy.

The policy included a number of procedures that already were in place here at UB, according to Sharon Nolan-Weiss, a roundtable participant and director of UB’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. UB has adjusted its policies over time to make them more effective, said Nolan-Weiss, who also serves as the university’s Title IX coordinator. “We can always be doing more. Sexual assault prevention needs to be everyone’s responsibility,” she said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for the SUNY policy to be enacted at all colleges and universities in the state. “We have the SUNY system as a resource,” Hochul said. “They have been through the challenges of instituting this. People said it couldn’t be done in such a short timeframe. I encourage our independent colleges to use SUNY as a resource.”

Several UB students participated in the roundtable. Minahil Khan, a junior political science and communication major at UB and the student representative on the UB Council, sat next to Hochul and asked about training resources for student leaders on campus and how to ensure that administrators listen to students’ feedback. “If your school’s not listening to your ideas about what’s unsafe and what makes you feel vulnerable and what’s not working, it will show up in that survey,” Gillibrand said. “The climate surveys will be an indication of whether you’re creating a safe place.”

Khan said she was “extremely appreciative” that Gillibrand and Hochul came to campus. “They took a very collaborative approach and wanted to hear everyone’s feedback,” she said after the event. “I am looking forward to seeing how the legislation develops after today’s conversation.” But, she added, the problem requires more than a bill in Congress. “It’s about changing the culture on college campuses, and that is a collaborative effort that involves students and campus officials.”

Among other highlights, Gillibrand’s bill would:

  • Establish new campus resources and support services for student survivors, including confidential advisers who can assist survivors with necessary accommodations, such as a new dorm room or altered class schedule.
  • Ensure minimum training standards for on-campus personnel.
  • Create new transparency requirements. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Education would, every two years, administer a confidential survey of students at every university in America, asking about sexual violence on campus. The results would be published online. “When that doesn’t match up with what a school (has reported), questions will be asked,” Gillibrand said.
  • Require one uniform process for campus student disciplinary proceedings, while prohibiting athletic departments or other subgroups from handling complaints.
  • Change the statute of limitations to allow sexual violence survivors more time to report an incident.