Blumenthal wants ‘bill of rights’ for college victims of sexual violence

Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaks of the need for a "College Sexual Assault Bill of Rights" for students

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaks of the need for a "College Sexual Assault Bill of Rights" for students

After hearing from hundreds of Connecticut college students about their experiences of sexual violence, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal wants an overhaul of federal law and enforcement procedures to ensure that college staff no longer turn away students seeking help.

“Survivors have reported that dismissive attitudes and statements from college staff discourage the filing of sexual assault complaints,” Blumenthal wrote in an 18-page report released Monday.

The Democratic senator’s proposed “College Sexual Assault Bill of Rights” comes amid increased public scrutiny of the way colleges handle sexual assaults. It follows complaints from students at 55 schools across the U.S. that their schools did not respond appropriately when they sought help after being assaulted or harassed.

The Connecticut legislature responded to the recent complaints against The University of Connecticut from seven current or former students by passing legislation that requires victims be offered free counseling and health services both on- and off-campus. The legislation Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law on Monday also requires training for first responders.

“Our students should feel safe on our colleges and universities and if that is not the case, we need to ensure we are doing all we can to protect them and prevent future acts of violence,” Malloy said in a prepared statement. “I am proud that Connecticut is leading the nation in the implementation of strict legislation that will force change.”

But Blumenthal said the new Connecticut law leaves some gaps in protecting future victims.

“It goes only part way in providing rights that would be included in the bill of rights,” he told reporters Monday during a press conference at the state Capitol.

The Connecticut senator developed his legislation after holding roundtable discussions with students, parents, law enforcement and college officials on campuses throughout the state.

The changes Blumenthal is seeking would:

  • Require colleges to provide awareness campaigns year-round. “To keep the issue in the forefront… Education programs must be continuous and consistent, not just limited to those entering school,” the report recommends. The Connecticut law requires schools to report on their prevention campaigns, but does not mandate that they happen throughout the year.
  • Training for first responders. “Students can’t consent if they are drunk.” Blumenthal wants campus investigators and first responders to be trained to this reality. Connecticut law does require schools to define consent, but does not describe the role alcohol plays into that definition. Blumenthal wants a federal definition of “consent.”
  • Enable prospective students and their parents to find out about all federal investigations and enforcement actions regarding a school’s handling of sexual assaults. Historically, there has been no public notice provided about schools where a complaint was determined by the U.S. Department of Education to merit an investigation. However, with more students making their complaints public, the department for the first time this month released the list of colleges currently being investigated.
  • Require colleges to provide students with an unbiased explanation of how to report a sexual assault, and what services are available to them such as free counseling, the ability to change course schedules and seek disciplinary or criminal action against the perpetrator. The new Connecticut law requires victims be provided with a “concise information written in plain English” and that services be provided for free by off-campus, non-university staff.
  • Require regular reviews on how college staff respond to allegations of sexual assault. “Survivors have reported inconsistent implementation of sexual assault policies, regardless of how adequate those policies may be on paper,” Blumenthal’s report concludes. He recommends a team be created for each school to oversee effective implementation of the law, something the new Connecticut legislation requires.

Blumenthal said he has been working with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, to change federal law.

“We will be introducing legislation together,” he said. “I think you will find a bill of rights” in the bill.

In the meantime, he is urging local college officials to voluntarily implement the changes – something the president of the state’s largest public college system said Monday he intends to have his board vote on as early as June.

“This problem has become an epidemic [nationally],” said Gregory Gray, president of the four Connecticut State Universities and a dozen community colleges.

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