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Cunningham, Sweeney Bills to Combat Sexual Assault on College Campuses Clear Committee

Bills would implement Obama-era Protections, Create Campus Sexual Assault Commission  

TRENTON – Today the Senate Higher Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senate Higher Education Chair Sandra Cunningham and Senate President Steve Sweeney aiming to protect and provide guidance on policy implementation to prevent sexual assault on college and university campuses.

“Sexual assault is a pervasive issue on college campuses around the country, and right here in New Jersey,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “While the Trump Administration threatens to weaken the policies in place to protect survivors of campus sexual assault, we must do everything in our power at the state level to strengthen and improve those policies.”

“By codifying the Obama-era guidelines into state law we will ensure continued protections for our college students in universities’ responses to allegations of sexual assault,” said Senator Sweeney (D- Gloucester/Salem/ Cumberland). “While federal regulations are being rolled back, we will continue to hold universities to a higher standard.”

On September 22, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education was withdrawing the statements of policy and guidance reflected in a “Dear Colleague Letter,” issued by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under President Barack Obama.  The justification given by Secretary DeVos for backtracking on these protections is that the rights of those accused of sexual assault were lost or compromised.

Recently, Secretary DeVos proposed new guidelines, which have not yet been finalized, would redefine sexual harassment. The new definition would make it more difficult for students to prove that their experience falls under the term “sexual harassment.”

Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

The first bill, S-778, sponsored by Senator Cunningham and Senator Tom Kean, Jr., would establish a Campus Sexual Assault Commission comprised of 12 members to study and evaluate emerging issues, policies and practices concerning campus sexual assault. The twelve-member commission includes experts, stakeholders, members of the public, and at least one campus sexual assault survivor. The Commission would meet quarterly to continue to address emergent issues and provide recommendations periodically to policy makers.

The second bill, S-779, sponsored by Senator Cunningham and Senator Sweeney, would require universities in the state to continue to follow the guidelines for handling sexual assault laid out by the Obama Administration, which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repealed. The bill addresses the procedures followed in response to allegations of sexual harassment, and ensures the process complies with the previous federal guidelines. It requires reports of sexual assault and sexual violence be investigated and adjudicated in a timely manner.

The bill also requires both public and private institutions of higher education to report the total number of allegations made by or against students, along with a summary of its efforts in responding to the allegations. The information compiled would be submitted annually to the Governor and the Legislature.

According to a report by the New Jersey Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault released in June 2017, approximately 20 percent of undergraduate women experience sexual violence while on college campuses around the nation, most often in their first year of school. Data also shows that a larger number of undergraduate students, particularly women, are impacted by sexual violence while on campus.

Both of the bills were released from committee by votes of 3-0, and next head to the full Senate for further consideration.