Two bills released from a state Senate committee at the end of last month both aim to strengthen policies and procedures regarding sexual assaults on college campuses in the state.
One is a bipartisan effort that would build on the good work of New Jersey’s Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault and should be passed and signed into law.
The other is a partisan rebuke to the federal government for revising its short-lived guidance to colleges on how to handle sexual assault cases. That shouldn’t be passed now or soon, and maybe ever.
The bipartisan bill — with primary sponsors Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, Somerset, Morris — would establish a Campus Sexual Assault Commission with a dozen mostly public members, including representatives from colleges and universities, experts in the commission’s work and at least one campus sexual assault survivor.
The state task force called for the creation of the commission in its June report as a means to carry out and extend its work. The commission would study and evaluate emerging issues, policies and practices concerning campus assaults, monitor the implementation of the report’s recommendations and develop an action plan every three years to respond to new issues and needs.
We liked the task force’s recommendations. One was to extend communication down into middle and high schools, which would provide welcome clarity on teaching students appropriate behavioral and cultural standards. Another was to conduct campus climate surveys every three years, done by many schools already but not uniformly.
And on the most contentious issue regarding campus assault allegations, the task force said colleges “should ensure that students’ rights are protected and that equal representation is provided to survivors and the accused.”
Establishing the Campus Sexual Assault Commission is the best next step toward eliminating predatory behavior while protecting all students.
Cunningham also has sponsored a bill, with fellow Democrat Senate President Stephen Sweeney, that would require colleges to follow 2011 guidance by the Obama administration to use the lowest standard of proof when evaluating sexual assault allegations.
That guidance was rescinded in September by the U.S. Department of Education, with Secretary Betsy DeVos saying it had created a “failed system” that hasn’t been fair to accusers or the accused.
Legislators don’t have to agree with DeVos to realize that reducing campus assaults requires careful, incremental progress, not partisan dispute. American society is experiencing an awakening about unwanted sexual behaviors and developing new norms and expectations. Haste in this case could ruin lives and gain nothing.
A leader on this issue in October vetoed a bill just like the one Sweeney and Cunningham propose.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, in 2014 signed the nation’s first “Yes Means Yes” law requiring affirmative agreement for college students to engage in sex — even consent for each touch each time.
Yet when his legislature presented him with a bill to put the Obama-era guidance into California law, Brown vetoed it, saying troubling concerns had arisen in recent years. In his veto letter, he said, “Thoughtful legal minds have increasingly questioned whether federal and state actions to prevent and redress sexual harassment and assault — well-intentioned as they are — have also unintentionally resulted in some colleges’ failure to uphold due process for accused students.”
Society is clearly engaged in deepening its understanding about sexual interactions with the intent to reduce unwelcome and nonconsensual acts. Related policies and procedures will need to evolve along with that emerging social consensus.
The Campus Sexual Assault Commission is designed exactly for that work and should be established soon.