TRENTON – Today the Senate Higher Education Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham and Senate President Steve Sweeney aiming to protect and provide guidance on policy implementation regarding sexual assault on college and university campuses.
“While strides have been made to combat sexual assault on college campuses, the problem persists,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson), Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “The guidelines for our institutions of higher education must be clear, consistent and rooted in the protections afforded under Title IX. We stand committed to this objective and will continue to fight against any decision or policy change that threatens to weaken protections for our students. This legislation ensures that our practices in New Jersey are steadfast.”
“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. While I believe many of our institutions already operate at a high level in this regard, we will never stop trying to improve safety and access to justice for our students,” said Senator Sweeney (D- Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem).
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.
Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.
The first bill, S-3488, sponsored by Senators Cunningham and Sweeney, requires institutions of higher education to use procedures in response to allegations of sexual harassment that are consistent with certain federal guidelines and to report incidents of sexual assault, investigate, and adjudicate allegations of sexual harassment, including sexual violence, that comply with the withdrawn documents. This bill also requires each public and independent institution of higher education to annually report to the 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. The information compiled must be submitted annually to the Governor and the Legislature.
The second bill, S-3414, sponsored by Senator Cunningham and Senator Tom Kean Jr., establishes 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 the Secretary of Higher Education, Attorney General and the Director of the Division on Women in the Department of Children and Families, or their designees, who will serve ex officio; five members of the public appointed by the Governor, including a representative of the State Colleges and Universities, 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 President of the Senate, the Speaker of the General Assembly, the Minority Leader of the Senate, and the Minority Leader of the General Assembly will each appoint one of these public members. Public members will serve for a term of three years. The Commission will meet quarterly to continue to address emergent issues and provide recommendations periodically to policy makers.
This bill would codify some recommendations from the Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault created on December 2, 2015.
“Now, more than ever, we must stand firm in our commitment to the students at our colleges and universities,” said Senator Cunningham. “Despite the federal government’s attempt to weaken our processes, we are committed to ensuring a safe school environment. We must ensure that our processes are as robust as possible and administered fairly.”
“While the federal government may want to go backwards, New Jersey will continue to go forward on these issues. New Jersey intends to be a leader in the protection of our students and will continue to strengthen the process of justice for survivors of sexual assault. These bills fulfill that goal,” said Senator Sweeney.
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 bills cleared Senate Higher Education Committee by a vote of 5-0. They now head to the full Senate for further consideration.